Rosaly LopesOct 02, 2010

Expedition to Piton volcano, Reunion Island

Planetary volcanologist Rosaly Lopes has just embarked on a field expedition to the active volcano Piton de la Fournaise, on Reunion Island, and is sending us updates for the blog. Thanks, Rosaly! --ESL

You won't see me at the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Pasadena this week. It is embarrassing to admit that I won't be there. I have not missed a DPS meeting in years, and this one is in my town! It turns out that the lure of La Reunion was too hard to resist. Never heard of La Reunion? Most people haven't and they ask me "You are going where???" Once I tell them that La Reunion is a volcanic island that is home to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world's most active volcanoes, they understand why I have to go. It so happens that there is a Calderas Workshop going on the same week as DPS and I was invited to talk about planetary calderas. I chose several on Venus, Mars and Io to focus on.

La Reunion is a volcanic island near Mauritius and Madagascar, but not famous for either its beaches or cute animals. In fact, it is not famous at all, except among volcanologists. Even among us, not many get there. It is a long way from anywhere, particularly from Los Angeles. It is probably about as far to fly from Los Angeles as almost anywhere on Earth. I just spent a night in Paris to break the journey. Tonight I get an Air Austral flight to the island. I had never heard of this airline but when you are going off the beaten track you don't have a lot of choice. As my mother put it, using a Brazilian expression for back-of-beyond, "La Reunion is where the devil lost his boots." He was probably climbing the volcano.

I don't know much about La Reunion, but my colleague Pete Mouginis-Mark did some field work there and told me that it is very much like Hawaii in landscape and vegetation. I said "like Hawaii but with French food?" He smiled and said yes, definitely. It seems unbeatable. I remember my graduate student days doing field work on Mt. Etna and meeting French volcanologists now and then up on the volcano. I was doing my Ph.D. in England and did field work with the Brits. We were lucky to stop 10 minutes to have lunch, usually just some fruit and nuts. If we came across the French volcanologists at lunchtime, they would be having Le Picnic, cloth spread out, baguette, cheeses, ham, wine... At those times I wondered why I had not chosen to study in France instead.

The most exciting thing about this trip is that the volcano is showing strong signs of unrest. Piton erupts often and the latest reports talk of increased levels of seismic activity. Ground inflation at the summit area begun in late August, meaning magma is moving up. Tens of small earthquakes, enough to be called a "seismic crisis" in the report, were recorded on September 24. The Alert Level is 1, meaning "probable or imminent eruption".

I'm hoping the volcano will erupt this week, but I'm not sure what that will do to our workshop. I have the opening talk on Monday, so chances are that I'll get to give it, jet-lagged and all. I'll keep you posted.

A Google Maps view of Piton de la Fournaise:
View Larger Map

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