The recent eruption on White Island in New Zealand has been particularly significant for two Centre College professors who regularly teach a course there on the physical science of volcanoes, which always includes a trek to the Whakaari volcano.
“I am deeply saddened by the tragedy that has struck the island and the community. My thoughts are with them,” said Kerry Paumi, an associate professor of chemistry who has visited White Island three times with Centre students.
“It has been an amazing experience for our students and the highlight of the course,” Paumi said. “It provides them with the opportunity to see first hand the processes for volcanic monitoring in the constantly changing crater.”
In addition to studying different types of volcanoes and eruptions, the course also addresses volcanic hazards and benefits, environmental effects and historically significant eruptions. Other geothermal phenomena such as hot springs and geysers are also considered.
Before going, she and chemistry colleague Joe Workman, who designed the course years ago, always carefully consider and abide by New Zealand safety recommendations.
“If the conditions are not safe due to either volcanic conditions or oceanic conditions,” Paumi made clear, “we have not gone.” In fact, Paumi and Workman will be in New Zealand with students again this January but doubt White Island will be included.
Workman agrees that Whakaari has always been one of the highlights of the course and also shares Paumi’s sadness.
“Walking into the active crater surrounded by sulfur chimneys, boiling mud pools and noxious gases is quite exhilarating,” he said. “It’s tragic what happened to those visitors.”
Typically, the 30 or so students stay in Auckland, Rotorua and Turangi during the three-week course that is part of the College’s CentreTerm between fall and spring semesters. Participants have to be game for a great deal of hiking and climbing.
“We visit three different types of volcanoes in New Zealand,” said Workman, “a volcanic field, caldera volcanoes (like Yellowstone) and stratovolcanoes (like Mt. Saint Helens and White Island).”
Since these volcanoes are all within a five-hour driving radius, the Centre class typically sees around 20 volcanoes, hiking to the summit of many of them.
“None are as active as White Island,” Workman added. “We missed small eruptions on one in 2007 by three months and another in 2011 by about a year.
Highlights of the course represent bucket list-like opportunities.
The time in Auckland includes a visit to Rangitoto and its black sand beach. Turangi offers the option to climb Mt. Ngarauhoe, made famous as Mount Doom in the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.
Nationally ranked for its study abroad program, Centre College students have the option to spend a semester away in one of nine different countries, including China, England, France, Mexico or Spain.
CentreTerm offers an even greater variety of destinations, ranging from Finland, Ireland and South Africa, to Barbados, Belize, Cuba and Japan. Newer options for global study include Bhutan, the Gambia, Tahiti, and Croatia and Slovenia, with all courses designed and taught by Centre faculty.
For a copy of the Physical Science of Volcanoes course itinerary, please visit here.
by Michael Strysick
December 16, 2019