Sniffing Volcanoes from Space: Simon Carn at the Michigan Tech Research Forum

Simon Carn
Simon Carn


The Michigan Tech Research Forum was developed to showcase and celebrate the work of Michigan Tech researchers and to strengthen discussions in our community.

It is a privilege and honor to announce Associate Professor Simon Carn (GMES) was selected from nominees across campus as the 2017 Distinguished Lecturer.

Carn will give his lecture at 4 p.m. Thursday (April 6, 2017) in the MUB Ballroom. He will present “Volcanology — Multidisciplinary Science for a Versatile Campus.” The session will feature ample time for mingling over snacks and refreshments before and after the lecture. All are welcome. In addition, on-site, low-cost childcare at the MUB is available for those who need it during the Distinguished Lecture. Learn more online.

John Gierke, chair of the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences nominated Carn for the award.

According to Gierke, Carn, “was a leading scientist in the application of sensors on the satellites forming what is called the Afternoon Constellation or ‘A-Train’ to Earth observations and specifically to volcanology.

“Simon possesses a unique knack for compiling and presenting information on satellite sensors and volcanic processes in visually appealing ways and for making compelling arguments in support of scientific observations of volcanoes.”

Quoting from the NASA website that features the A-Train, “This coordinated group of satellites … are in a polar orbit, crossing the equator … within seconds to minutes of each other. This allows near-simultaneous observations of a wide variety of parameters to aid the scientific community in advancing our knowledge of Earth-system science and applying this knowledge for the benefit of society.“

Carn joined the faculty of the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences as an assistant professor in 2008. He came to Michigan Tech from the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He holds a PhD in volcanology from the University of Cambridge, UK, a DEA in volcanology and magmatic processes from the Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrant, France and a BA in geology from the University of Oxford, UK.

He has received multiple research grants totaling more than $2.8 million from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, the Royal Society and the European Union.

He has taught, lectured and supervised students since 1994 at Michigan Tech and across the world at the International Volcanological Field School in Russia, Cambridge University, the Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology and at international workshops in France, Italy, Iceland, Indonesia, Singapore and Costa Rica.

Carn has been a member of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior and the American Geophysical Union since 1994. He recently served on a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Improving Understanding of Volcanic Eruptions.

His current research focus is the application of remote sensing data to studies of volcanic degassing, volcanic eruption clouds and anthropogenic pollution. His main focus: SO2, a precursor of sulfate aerosol, which plays an important role in the atmosphere through negative climate forcing and impacts on cloud microphysics.

7 questions with Volcanologist Simon Carn

Q: When was the moment you knew volcanology was for you?

A: The first active volcano I encountered was Arenal in Costa Rica during my travels after finishing high school. However, I think the point that I first seriously considered volcanology as a career was during my MS degree in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The first field trip of that course was to Italy to see the spectacular active volcanoes Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius.

Q: What do you like most about volcanology?
A: Studying volcanoes is undeniably exciting and exotic, and we are lucky to visit some spectacular locations for fieldwork and conferences. New eruptions can occur at any time, so there’s always something new and exciting to study. We are also fortunate in that it is relatively easy to justify studying volcanoes (e.g., to funding agencies), given their potentially significant impacts on climate, the environment and society.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in this field?
A: Accurate prediction of volcanic eruptions is a significant challenge, and will remain so until we can increase the number of global volcanoes that are intensively monitored.

Q: What has changed the most in volcanology over the past decade (or two)?
A: The amount of geophysical data collected from the ground and space has increased exponentially, along with the computational capacity to process the data and construct numerical models of volcanic processes. This has significantly advanced our understanding of the potential impacts of volcanoes.

Q: How do your two specialties—volcanology and teaching—complement each other?
A: I think volcanoes are a very effective tool for recruiting and engaging students, e.g., by using some dramatic eruption footage to pique their interest in the underlying physical processes. There are many different aspects of volcanic activity, ranging from the geological origins of volcanoes to their impacts on the atmosphere, so effective teaching of volcanology requires some expertise in multiple fields of science. Gathering the relevant information is personally very rewarding and frequently opens up new avenues for research.

Q: You studied and worked in England, France and Europe. How did you come to Michigan Tech, and how does it work as a home base?
A: After finishing my PhD in the UK, I worked on the island of Montserrat (West Indies) for several months monitoring the active Soufriere Hills volcano. This got me interested in the use of remote sensing techniques for monitoring volcanic gas emissions. I then moved to the US for a postdoc at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, using satellite data to measure volcanic emissions, and whilst there I started collaborating with the Michigan Tech volcanology group. Michigan Tech has been highly regarded for its volcanology program, and in particular for remote sensing of volcanoes, for many years and so it was an ideal fit for me when I was looking for a faculty position.

Q: I noticed the photo your grandfather took of a smoking Mt. Vesuvius during WWII (at the very bottom on your website. Was he a volcanologist, as well? How did you come across that photo?
A: He wasn’t a volcanologist, though he was a high school science teacher and a conservationist. The photo of Vesuvius was always one of his favorites, from a time when photographs were quite rare, and he often showed it to me in my youth.

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