Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Monday, 30 September 2013

UEA's 50th: Ask a Geologist, Volcanoes in Norwich and visits from Dwarves

After months of anticipation and planning this Saturday was the University of East Anglia’s 50th Anniversary celebration. The whole campus was turned into some sort of educational fun fair with each department contributing in some way.

As part of the School of Environmental Sciences and a geologist (sort of) I was recruited for the Norfolk Volcano Team who’d organised the grand finale of the day’s entertainment in the form of an erupting scale replica of Mount Merapi, but more of that later.

As Friday was thesis deadline day for many of the department’s 4th year PhD’s the morning started badly, with a hangover thanks to a few too many pints of ale at the departmental happy hour and then the pubs of Norwich, and so setting up the first (of many) liquid nitrogen volcano (see previous posts on ‘How to build a volcano’ and ‘Beware the liquid nitrogenpowered orange’ for the do’s and dont's of these) of the day before 10am was not the most enjoyable task.

After a morning of exploding bins to the delight of crowds of small children it was time for the (Great Norfolk?)’Volcano Cake Off’. In my opinion this was definitely the highlight of the day. There were cakes with accurately modelled magma chambers, beautifully layered stratovolcanoes, bubbling and degassing vents, mini firework eruptions and (with his usual flare of craziness) Honza managed to cover a couple of children in (edible but possibly not washable) lava with a foot-pump-and-bursting-balloon-powered stombolian eruption (and still got 3rd place)!!!

The Volcano Cake Off (photo by Honza Chylik)

After the cakes had been judged, which generally resulted in some major Canary Islands style flank collapse (with just as much possibility of mega-tsunami generation as the real thing), it turned into some sort of horrific cake eating free-for-all as the bakers suddenly made a LOT of new friends.

My afternoon was spent in the Volcano tent doing ‘Ask a Geologist’ which was (surprisingly given my lingering hangover) great fun. Both children and adults came in with their rock collections, holiday photos and fracking/global warming worries, here are a few highlights:

A child came in with a rock collection he’d bought on his summer holiday at Mount Vesuvius, at some point the box had been dropped and all the rocks and minerals had got muddled up, unfortunately, as you can see in the photo, the labels were all in Italian so myself and one of the vulcanologists spent a fun 10 minutes sorting that as best as we could. If you speak Italian and can see any mistakes (we had no idea what the red, blue or sparkly minerals were supposed to be, they may have been artificially dyed, as may the ‘olivine’ which obviously wasn't found around Vesuvius even if it was real) please comment.

Child's rock collection from Vesuvius, please comment with any corrections/translations

Attempting to explain flint formation to a 6 year old – this hurt me

Miming an ammonite and a pectin (scallop) while identifying a fossil collection

Having a rather posh old couple come in and show me their holiday photos from the south of France (on their iPad). Their guidebook to the area had mentioned carved spheres of rock in the limestone but they were in very distinct bands in the limestone beds and seemed to be a slightly different rock type, so they’d realised these were a natural formation and had spent a year trying to find out what they actually were. As soon as I saw the pictures I know they were carbonate concretions, which at great coincidence were the topic of my Master’s thesis, and so I spent a good 15 minutes telling them EVERYTHING I could remember on the subject, finally a use for all that random specialist knowledge. Although going into redox boundaries and drawing diagrams of various types of concretion growth may have been going a bit far, they seemed pretty happy to have found the answer.

A piece of scoria (highly vesicular lava) found on a beach in Norfolk, this must have been brought by the sea all the way from Iceland or Italy, if not from even further!

After many hours of working my way through bags and boxes of rocks it was time, we thought, to relax and enjoy the firework volcano. But no, there were not enough (paid) stewards and security staff so we had to ‘volunteer’ to steward the event. I managed to get myself into a pretty good spot but some of the undergrads were not so lucky and after a full day’s volunteering barely got to see any of the show, which seems pretty unfair.

The volcano itself was a scale model of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, an active stratovolcano (which was chosen by the organisers for reasons which can be found on their blog here). Months of planning by the Norfolk Firework Volcano team had gone into researching, planning, organising and then building the volcano and they’d even got the same guy who did the some of the pyrotechnics for the London Olympics to create the eruption.

'Mount Merapi' photo by Honza Chylik

Once it got dark enough, the main eruption was preceded by traditional Indonesian music and a Taiko drumming display and then Gimli himself, John Rhys Davies, read an extract from ‘The Firework Maker’s Daughter’ by Phillip Pullman, which, in his Treebeard voice, sounded amazing (check out the video below) as the volcano started to de-gas and rumble next to him.

Then, finally it was time for the eruption, this was pretty spectacular, as from where we were in the dark, it didn't look like we were watching a small model of a volcano close up, it looked like we were watching a real eruption up off in the distance. As if somehow the tectonic plates beneath us had shifted and brought a subduction zone beneath Norfolk. I'm not going to bother attempting to describe the eruption itself, instead here’s my attempt at filming it and the following firework display. Unfortunately the fireworks are cut short as a stray flame set fire to the big finale, you can hear John Rhys Davies (yeah, we were sat next to Gimli) at the end joking about it, but it was still pretty impressive.

Let’s just hope that UEA’s 100th anniversary is just as impressive…

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