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Pitt professor helps monitor the volcano

| Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004

A University of Pittsburgh professor is joining scientists worldwide in analyzing data from Mount St. Helens, which seems ready to erupt at any time.

Michael Ramsey, assistant professor in the department of geology and planetary science, who specializes in volcanology, is examining satellite images to better understand the rumbling mountain.

Though most of his research has focused on active volcanos in the Aleutian Islands, Russia and South America, Ramsey, who was at Mount St. Helens in July testing field equipment, said the volcano's dome is providing valuable geologic lessons.

"This sort of surprised everyone," Ramsey said Monday of the recent geothermal activity. "It's something that started up quickly and no one predicted it."

As part of the Image Visualization and Infrared Spectroscopy Lab he established at Pitt in 2000, Ramsey works with remote sensing equipment such as thermal imaging cameras -- similar to those used by firefighters, police and the military -- to determine where volcanic hot spots are located and where magma and other explosive material might be moving.

The IVIS lab subsists on nearly $2 million in grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

"We look at temperatures and what the volcano is doing when it's acting up," he said. "In looking at the heat source, we can learn a lot about the composition of rocks and take a snapshot of the mountain."

Typically, cameras and other sensors are mounted on a helicopter or airplane, satellites, or at observatories safely out of harm's way, allowing scientists to study volcanoes during potentially deadly eruptions.

Adam Carter, a graduate student in remote sensing and volcanology under Ramsey, said monitoring from satellites is useful in studying volcanoes that are inaccessible, such as the Bezymianny volcano in Russia.

"We use field work to collect samples, and fly over with thermal imaging cameras to look for hot areas around the summit," Carter said.

"The initial explosion on St. Helens (Friday) did not emit any fresh material ... this was seen by thermal data," he said.

Carter, who previously studied at England's University of Leeds, said he came to Pitt because the department has a strong volcanology element and excellent remote sensing tools. He recently returned from studying volcanoes in Kamchatka, eastern Russia.

If researchers at Mount St. Helens express a need for additional assistance, Ramsey said he could board a plane quickly and take with him a $60,000 thermal imaging camera from the IVIS Lab.

"It's important to get out there and get as much data as we can so we can spend the next year determining exactly what is happening," he said. "My primarily concern is how we can develop advanced warning systems and make living near a volcano safer."

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