Volcanologists are scientific researchers who study the properties of volcanoes and develop the science of predicting volcanic eruptions accurately.
Volcanoes are the results of fissures in the earth’s crust, from which magma, gases, rocks and ashes can erupt. There are about 1500 potentially active volcanoes around the world. Some of them, like Etna and Stromboli in Italy, have been in continuous eruption for more than 2,000 years.
360 volcanoes exploded in the 20th century, one of the most famous being Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Volcanic eruptions and their impact on the atmosphere are investigated by specialist geologists known as volcanologists.
Volcanologists are scientists who use a variety of sophisticated equipment to measure and analyse volcanic activity, lava, rock, ashes and gases as well as earthquakes caused by eruptions. They also measure the magnitude and intensity of explosions, placing them on a scale from 1 to 8 (volcanic explosivity index).
Volcanologists monitor both active and dormant volcanoes to try to predict eruptions and minimise adverse effects on people and their environment. They also spend a lot of time collecting and analysing samples of debris, rocks and other products from extinct volcanoes to gain a better understanding of the processes behind volcanic activity and the impact former eruptions had in shaping the climate.
There are four main types of volcanologists:
- Physical volcanologists: they combine different disciplines – such as petrology, geochemistry, geomorphology and fluid dynamics – to study the processes that control volcanic eruptions.
- Geophysicists: they monitor volcanic action by studying gravity, magnetic changes and phenomena related to earthquakes (seismology).
- Geodesic volcanologists: they look at the changes and deformation of the ground resulting from a volcano’s eruption and lava.
- Geochemists: they study the influences of the deep earth on the explosion of volcanoes, as well as the environmental impact of ashes and gases emitted by eruptions.
Being a volcanologist entails working in the public sector, as the only employers are government research institutes or universities. In higher education institutions, volcanologists usually both teach students and undertake their own research.
With a PhD, starting salaries average £26,000 to £29,000 per year.
The salary of lecturers in volcanology ranges from £40,000 to £60,000 per year.
At senior level, a volcanologist can earn between £60,000 and £70,000 per year.
Volcanologists are expected to:
- Assess hazards and risks posed by dormant and active volcanoes by monitoring seismic activity, gas and water vapour emission, as well as ground deformation, during field surveys
- Use seismic tomography to locate magma very deep below the earth’s surface and give more accurate predictions of possible eruptions
- Collect and analyse samples of eruptive products (rocks, minerals, glass, ashes, lava, gases)
- Analyse the chemical composition of volcanic ashes and gases
- Classify eruptions according to their type: phreatic, strombolian, hawaiian, vulcanian or plinian
- Monitor volcanic activity as well as the frequency, class and intensity (from micro-tremors to intense shocks) of earthquakes during an eruption, using sophisticated measuring and mapping equipment (seismometers, theodolites, satellite imagery, GPS)
- Map the rocks forming the volcano
- Assess ground deformation by using electronic tiltmeters and satellite photography
- Simulate volcano activity in a laboratory environment
- Inform the government and general population of possible eruptions
- Advise the government in case of volcanic ash fall
- Apply for funding
- Keep abreast of latest technological advances in GPS surveying and other measuring techniques
To become a volcanologist, you need to start with an undergraduate degree in earth science, geology, chemistry or physics. However, your career prospects will be limited to a technician position if you only hold an undergraduate qualification. In order to go up the ladder, apply for an MSc or PhD with a specialisation in geomorphology, geophysics or geochemistry.
In the UK, Lancaster University is the only higher education institution to offer an MSc Volcanology and Geological Hazards. You can also undertake a Masters in geophysical and natural hazards, which cover earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and floods as well as volcanic eruptions at the following universities:
- University College London (UCL)
- The University of Portsmouth
- The University of Bristol
- The University of Lancaster
Keele University offers an MSc in Geosciences Research Training with International Placement, which currently offers volcanology and igneous petrology placements at the University of Uppsala (Sweden), INGV (Italy), University of Budapest (Hungary) and UCD (Ireland).
Doctoral opportunities are available at:
- The University of Oxford
- The University of Bristol
- The University of Cambridge
- The University of Durham
- The University of East Anglia
- The University of Liverpool
- The University of Edinburgh
- The University of Keele
- The University of Leicester
- The University of Leeds
- The University of Plymouth
- The University of Hull
You can find other useful information on the Volcanoes@UEA Group website, Geohazards Group of the University of Edinburgh and the Volcanology Group, part of the Earth Hazards Team at the British Geological Survey.
- Passion for adventure, travel and outdoors life
- Love of science
- Good level of fitness
- Willingness to work hard
- Analytical skills
- Computer literacy
- Team-working skills
- Project management skills
Most volcanologists spend part of the year on field expeditions, sometimes in remote areas and in difficult conditions. Volcanoes are found all other the world, in all kinds of terrestrial and marine environments, from the equatorial climate of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the icy region of Antarctica.
Working on dormant volcanoes has its dangers, and some volcanologists have been killed while on duty. This is what happened to Maurice and Katia Krafft, two veteran volcanologists who died in June 1991 while filming the eruption of Unzen volcano in Japan. However, this is a very rare occurrence as volcanologists take all necessary safety precautions and will not work in an area considered too dangerous.
The rest of the time is spent in the lab or in an office, analysing data and filling in applications for funding.
There are few work opportunities, especially as there are no active volcanoes in Britain, so voluntary experience as a field or lab assistant, for example with the Earthwatch Institute, will give you an invaluable opportunity to get into this exclusive field.
Most volcanologists both undertake their own research and lecture at university. With experience, you can start supervising PhD and postdoctoral students and fellows, as well as getting involved in the administration of a department of earth sciences.
You can also apply for a managerial position, leading a team of scientists on volcanic expeditions and training staff.
Also known as…
- Geodesic Volcanologist
- Environmental Consultant
What’s it really like?
Dr Tamsin Mather, 35, works at the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Oxford.
What is your job title?
I am a university lecturer.
How long have you been in this particular job?
What did you do before this job and how did you end up doing it?
I was a research fellow and before that a PhD student. My current work followed on from there.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have an undergraduate master’s degree in chemistry and a PhD in earth sciences.
Do you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
It gave me the basic scientific tools but there are lots of skills that I have picked up since in other ways.
What do you do in a typical working day?
It is very variable and depends if I am doing fieldwork or not, or whether it is within university term. When I am in Oxford, it is usually a mixture of teaching, administration of the department and my research team, teaching graduates and seeing research students, postdocs and colleagues. If I am in the field, then it is usually a matter of getting out on the volcano, making measurements as soon as I can and for as long as I can!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
You need good scientific and mathematical skills, determination, an enquiring and analytical mind.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, mainly in Latin America and Europe but also as far afield as Hawaii and Japan.
What has been your best experience on the job?
I love working on the volcanoes themselves but I also love it when new data comes in that tells a new and exciting story. There’s a real excitement about finding out something new about how volcanoes work and what impacts they have had on our planet.
What was the worst experience? Have you ever been in danger?
The worst was being held up at gunpoint in Nicaragua. We went into Masaya National Park before it was officially open (hence no rangers around) in order to try to catch the plume (volcanic particles and gas released into the atmosphere from the lava lake surface within the vent during the ongoing activity) grounding before it lofted with the heat of the day. It is best to sample the plume at the crater rim, but under certain conditions (for example, light winds), the plume rises too high out of the vent and therefore drifts off over our heads. The early morning can be a good time to get good sampling conditions when the air is relatively cool and so the plume can be more cloud-like and less buoyant.
As we headed to the crater, the two robbers must have seen our car from a distance and came and threatened us. They took our cameras and watches but fortunately left the scientific equipment and we were both unharmed, if rather shaken.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Work hard at your fundamental scientific and mathematical skills and take them with you onto the volcano.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
Science policy work or writing about science for a lay audience.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
The Oxford lecturer pay scale is about between £43,000 and 58,000 per year.