By Emme Demmendaal MSU NEWS SERVICE
BOZEMAN – A Montana State University graduate student was recently awarded the American Geosciences Institute’s Harriet Evelyn Wallace Scholarship, which will partially fund her research into magma’s journey to the surface during an explosive volcanic eruption, science that could, one day, benefit communities with improved volcano behavior forecasting.
“I’m really grateful and honored to be selected for this scholarship,” said Behnaz Hosseini, a doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences who has been researching the rise of magma during volcanic eruptions as a part of her graduate research.
“Not only is it supporting the next phase of research but it’s reassuring and validating to know that the Wallace scholarship committee sees merit in me as a scientist and in the project that I’m proposing,” she said.
Hosseini was one of two recipients selected from more than 130 applicants. The scholarship comes with a stipend of $5,000 for the upcoming academic year.
Over the last three years, Hosseini has been studying how reliably volcanic crystals within magma behave as speedometers, recording how quickly magma rises to the surface during eruptions. A better understanding of magma ascent rate, as it’s called, has huge implications for forecasting the hazards and risks that volcanic eruptions pose to communities and infrastructure, Hosseini said.
The research used small, metal capsules filled with volcanic material that were placed in a chamber that recreates the high pressures and temperatures that magma experiences on its way to the surface. The experiments simulate magma rising from a depth of 3 miles to the surface, mimicking volcanic eruptions on a very small scale.
“When I recover a crystal from an experimental capsule, I know its entire history from depth to the surface and, with this valuable information at hand, I can determine how accurately the crystals record the process of magma movement toward the surface,” Hosseini said.
The time it takes for magma to rise dictates how much time is available for gasses, such as water and carbon dioxide, to separate from the magma. That, in part, drives how explosive an eruption may be. Hosseini measures the amounts of those dissolved gasses, called “volatiles,” that are “frozen” in pockets within the crystals that are called embayments.
“Crystals and their embayments are powerful archives of magma ascent rate,” she said. By studying the dissolved volatiles in the embayments and using computer modeling, Hosseini can determine the rate at which the magma rose to the surface. The results of the experiment will help validate and refine a popular technique, called embayment geospeedometry, which is increasingly applied to volcanoes around the world.
This method, combined with ground-based monitoring data, such as seismicity, provides a more complete understanding of how magma rises to the surface.
With the assistance of the Harriet Evelyn Wallace Scholarship, Hosseini can move into the next phase of her research and apply similar techniques to Mount Redoubt , an active volcano along the Aleutian Arc of Alaska.
Mount Redoubt has erupted five times in the last 120 years, about 20 to 30 years apart, with the most recent eruption in 2009. Several of the eruptions were explosive, with plumes of material reaching over 7 miles up into the atmosphere. Floods and mudflows created by the 2009 eruption damaged an oil storage facility, Hosseini said, pointing out that the volcano is along a heavily trafficked air route and only a little over 100 miles from the state’s largest city, Anchorage.
Working in partnership with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Hosseini will use samples of volcanic rock produced by the eruption to fill in missing information from previous research on Mount Redoubt. Similar to the lab experiments, she will study the crystals from the 2009 eruption to determine where magma was stored and how quickly it rose to the surface. She will then integrate her data with existing information on this and previous eruptions to better understand how the volcano might behave in the future.
For Hosseini, this research encapsulates why she is passionate about volcanology.
“I’m really interested in studying volcanoes that are active today and pose hazards and risks to the population,” she said. “The potential to bring data that I’ve collected to the table with volcano scientists from other subdisciplines and determine how these data fit into our current understanding of this eruption is exciting to me.”
“Behnaz is an extremely dedicated and hardworking student,” said Madison Myers, volcanologist and assistant professor in Earth sciences at MSU. “The work she is currently doing will have big impacts for communities that live around volcanoes, especially in understanding the timeframes over which these eruptions can occur.”
The technique Hosseini is using has become a popular and powerful tool in volcanology, Myers said, and the research she is doing adds to the body of knowledge, advancing the field of study.
“Not only is Behnaz at the forefront of volcanology in terms of the challenging science she’s doing but she’s also extremely good at communicating this science and wanting to do outreach and wanting to give back to the community,” Myers said.
In recognition of Hosseini’s achievements in research, MSU’s College of Letters and Science also recently awarded her the Dean’s Student Travel Fund and the Graduate Professional Advancement Grant to support her in presenting research at geoscience conferences in Hawaii and New Zealand.
“These opportunities allow me to become a more well-rounded scientist and to build lasting connections and collaborations with others in the volcanological community. I am thrilled to begin this next chapter of my research with so much generous support,” she said.