Lava Man: Brendan McCormick joins Real Scientists

After an intriguing week following the adventures of  biomedical engineer and software consultant Dr Maia Sauren (@sauramaia)  through the world of data management and open source work, we shift to the Northern Hemisphere to meet Brendan McCormick (@BrendanVolc), volcanologist at the Smithsonian Institution!  Brendan is and Englishman abroad, and having just returned from the field in Chile, has many things to tell us about his adventures and all about volcanoes.

Brendan McCormick is a postdoctoral research fellow in volcanology at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. His specific area of research is volcanic gas emissions. Brendan uses satellite-based measurements of volcanic gases in the atmosphere to determine the magnitude and variability of volcanic emissions, which are important for monitoring the activity of volcanoes and gauging the environmental impact of their degassing. Brendan’s postdoctoral research is co-funded by the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO). Through DCO and Smithsonian, Brendan is working to develop a new online database of global volcanic emissions, which will be linked with other online geological and volcano logical resources.

Here’s more about Brendan, in his own words:

Why/How did you end up in science?

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Both my parents have a geosciences background and through them I developed my interest in the workings of the world around me. Fossil collecting in the South of England, hiking the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, and visits to the Natural History and Science museums in London made a big impression on me and led me towards geology. I had great teachers through high school (Mearns Academy, in Laurencekirk, Scotland) who helped me develop the maths, physics, chemistry and writing/communication skills I would need later, and who were important, along with my parents, in first encouraging me to apply to Oxford. I was accepted to study Earth Sciences and in the nine years since I have been able to follow my interests and curiosity, through geology to volcanology, and to Cambridge for my PhD, and Washington DC for my first (current) postdoctoral fellowship.


Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

I became interested in volcanology during my final year in Oxford. My Masters research project looked at emissions from fumaroles on Vulcano Island, Sicily, and their influence on the local environment. Though only a short project, this gave me the opportunity to work with volcanologists and geochemists in the department, and afforded me many useful and inspiring experiences- planning and undertaking a field campaign to make measurements and collect samples; laboratory preparation and analyses; and testing my hypotheses against data I had collected. After this, I knew I wanted to continue in research. I moved to Cambridge for my doctorate and it was there that my work using satellites to study volcanoes got underway.

Many things keep me excited about my work. Volcanoes are one of nature’s most powerful and complex phenomena and I feel very fortunate to be able to study them professionally. Satellite remote sensing of volcanic gas emissions is still relatively novel compared to more established ground-based measurements techniques and I enjoy exploring how well we can integrate satellite data into our existing knowledge. Volcanoes are found in many wonderful locations around the world- through my career to date I have visited or worked in Japan, Mexico, Chile, Greece, Italy and Iceland. The worldwide community of volcanologists is also a huge attraction- among dozens of colleagues from many nations with inspiring, ambitious research, I also count several generous and dedicated mentors and numerous close friends.


Tell us about your work?

I use satellite observations to study the emission of sulphur dioxide gas from volcanoes worldwide. The magma beneath volcanoes contains dissolved gases, which are released as the magmas depressurise on ascent through the Earth’s crust, potentially towards eruption. Monitoring gas emissions from volcanoes is therefore a useful index of their state of activity or unrest. Satellites are useful because of their potential to observe virtually the whole Earth each day, and over many years. My recent work has been in developing satellite surveillance of volcanic emissions, comparing space-based and ground-based measurements of volcanic gases, and better understanding the variability of emissions on various temporal and spatial scales.


Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

Volcanic gas emissions have been called “telegrams from the deep” for the message they convey about the state of unrest or activity at the volcano. If we measure these emissions, we come closer to understanding how and when volcanic activity may increase in intensity towards eruption. This is hugely important for the millions of people worldwide who live in the shadow of active volcanoes.

Emissions themselves can also influence the Earth’s climate and environments, on many spatial and temporal scales. Over geological time, it is volcanic emissions we have to thank for the favourable atmospheric composition and habitability of our planet. Understanding how natural emissions perturb the environment is highly important in this age of ever-increasing anthropogenic emissions and environmental/climate change.


Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am hoping to get more involved in outreach events, bringing science and research to a wider audience. I’m relatively new to Twitter but have enjoyed using it as a means to communicate science, mostly geology, to anyone who is interested. It’s very rewarding to find people who are curious about my work, and to discuss science in forums other than conferences or journal publications. I was inspired into working in science as I began to learn about the natural world, and I hope that in some way I can contribute to encouraging others in similar ways.

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Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

AAt the moment, my free time is split mainly between sports and music. I play football (soccer) a couple of times a week, mostly 7-aside coed, but mens’ 11-aside too. I love hiking and while opportunities are fewer now I’m not living beside the Cairngorms in Scotland, climbing volcanoes in Chile and peaks in the Adirondacks have both been pretty great times this past year. Music: I love going to gigs (DC has been excellent for this) and always have something playing at home. I used to sing a lot and played brass instruments too but right now I am mostly just noodling around on my ukulele and harmonica (can anyone reading this help me get better at bending the notes?!). I’d love to get back into playing music more often.


How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

An ideal day off for me is often one without a definite plan- waking without an alarm, having breakfast without a rush, and then making a second pot of tea over which to ponder some options. I like to leave scope for whims and opportunity.


Please welcome Brendan to Real Scientists!

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