BUFFALO, N.Y. -- To simulate earthquakes, engineers have shake
tables. To simulate sub-atomic collisions, physicists have
Until now, though, there has been no effective way to simulate
full-scale volcanic eruptions.
But this weekend, the University at Buffalo's Center for
Geohazards Studies will convene a National Science
Foundation-funded workshop to plan the world's first international
user facility where scientists will be able to test large-scale
geologic hazards. A key feature of the user facility is that
scientists will be able to use it to do their own research, either
in collaboration with UB geologists or independently, whichever is
more appropriate for a specific experiment.
The geohazards facility is being developed as one of several
scientific field stations at a campus in Ashford, N.Y., about 35
miles from Buffalo, through a joint collaboration between UB's
Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research
(MCEER) and its partner Calspan Corporation. The campus is being
developed as a platform for conducting full-scale tests in a range
of extreme events.
The idea for a large-scale, geologic hazard experimentation
facility was developed by scientists at UB, who comprise one of the
world's leading research groups in understanding volcanic eruptions
and other geologic hazards.
"Once the idea for this field station began to take shape at UB,
I sent out some feelers to about 50 scientists in the global
geohazard community in order to gauge their interest," says Greg A.
Valentine, PhD, UB professor of geology and director of UB's Center
for Geohazards Studies.
"To be honest, I thought people would be ambivalent, preferring
to do experiments at their own labs, but the responses have been
nothing but enthusiastic," he says. "We've had to turn away some
people who wanted to come to the workshop and we were only able to
accept 20 percent of the students and postdoctoral applicants who
wanted to attend."
Valentine says that the enthusiasm reflects the difficulties
that volcanologists and other geoscientists have faced in trying to
"Many geologic processes are impossible to scale down to
something you could do in a lab," he says. "As a result, there are
two approaches: computer modeling, which has drawbacks because how
do you then check models and verify that they are working
correctly, or fieldwork at real eruptions. But even if you are able
to make measurements at an erupting volcano, you don't know what's
happening inside the volcano."
Geohazards that may be simulated at the field station include
volcanic plumes, like the one that brought European air travel to a
halt last spring, and pyroclastic flows that can be created using
volcanic materials and then released down a hillside to measure
their speed and potential for causing damage, based on their
physical and chemical properties.
Because large-scale, geohazards processes are far too costly for
individual investigators to simulate, the idea at UB is for
investigators to pool their resources and develop a single facility
for that purpose.
"This will be a facility for the international geohazards
research community so, in order to make that vision come true, the
community has to be involved in designing its infrastructure and
deciding what are the research priorities," says Valentine.
Proposals also will be developed in order to attract funding for
the construction of the facility.
"That's the purpose behind this weekend's workshop," says
And Western New York's harsh winters might turn out to be a plus
for realistically assessing what happens during some of the most
destructive geologic events, says Valentine.
"A big part of understanding volcanic ash plumes, for example,
is understanding what happens when plumes interact with the wind,
as we saw last spring when volcanic ash brought air travel to a
stop for several days," he continues. "Catastrophic hazards also
are created when you have both fire and ice. For example, in
Colombia in 1985, the devastating mud flow that killed 25,000
people was caused by a really tiny volcanic eruption, but it
deposited this extremely hot material onto a glacier, which then
melted very rapidly. That caused the huge mud flow, which
devastated an entire town that was between 40 and 60 kilometers
A big plus, Valentine notes, is that the Ashford campus has
infrastructure, including roads, electricity, water and a machine
While it will take several years and major funding to make the
field station a reality, he says that studies of volcanic craters,
which would include underground explosions and subsequent
excavations, could be done fairly inexpensively and within the next
couple of years.
The international effort is being reinforced by VHub, a major
NSF-funded project also led by UB, which is developing a community
cyberinfrastructure for global collaboration in volcano science and
VHub will help speed the transfer of new tools developed by
volcanologists to the government agencies charged with protecting
the public from the hazards of volcanic eruptions.
"The VHub project only started in January, but it's already
being used for a variety of international research projects,
including work related to last spring's eruption in Iceland," says
Valentine. "We'll be using VHub as a way to continue the
conversation about the field station, while building new
collaborative bridges with scientists around the world."
UB's expertise in volcanology fits within the context of the UB
2020 strategic strength in Extreme Events: Response and Mitigation,
a cross-disciplinary effort to foster new scientific ideas
throughout different departments and schools at UB and its partner
institutions. The university-wide strategic strength in Extreme
Events focuses on understanding hazards, the response of
infrastructure to hazards and ways to mitigate damage.
The workshop will be held at the Beaver Hollow Conference
Center, which is a co-sponsor along with the NSF, UB's Center for
Geohazards Studies, MCEER and the UB Extreme Events strategic
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.