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Out of the Crater:
Chronicles of a Volcanologist
Richard V. Fisher

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1998, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Chapter 1


It was my fiftieth birthday, a warm August 8, 1978. That morning I had decided to do field work on San Ildefonso Pueblo land in New Mexico, without authorization from the San Ildefonso Pueblo tribal council. I made the decision with considerable anxiety, for I had heard stories of people who had entered the property without permission only to have their cameras, wallets, and other private possessions taken from them. My camera was indispensable, and my field notebook was filled with geological data--there was no other copy. I was tracing a volcanic ash layer that was exposed in gulleys and canyon walls across the Pajarito Plateau, near the towns of White Rock and Los Alamos, much of which is owned by the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Gambling that I would not be discovered, I decided to explore that part of the plateau anyway. I was less sensitive in those days, and apologize for my trespass, for I know now that sacred lands need to be honored.

    I walked across an open, gullied, upland surface with low shrubs, feeling very noticeable, expecting at any minute to be surrounded by hostile elders, but the land was empty of people, and I saw only a few rabbits. I walked about half a mile across the flatland and then entered a small canyon and started up the other side. Halfway up, I heard voices and the bark of a dog. They could only be from people from the pueblo, so I crouched behind a very small bush and froze. Two horsemen herding three cows came over the crest of a hill on the other side of the canyon at eye level with me, but they were deep in conversation. Had they flicked their eyes upward, they would have seen me crouching like a giant ball behind the tiny bush, but, preoccupied, they rode down the opposite ridge below my position without looking up. As they crossed my path, the dog stopped, vigorously sniffed at my trail, and began to follow my smell up the slope. I closed my eyes, knowing that I was about to be discovered. But one of the riders whistled, and, to my great relief, the dog turned and ran after the men.

    The area of the plateau that I intended to explore that day was a long finger of rolling flatland about three miles long and a few hundred feet wide, bounded by canyons with steep cliffs, three to four hundred feet high, carved into the plateau by small tributaries of the Rio Grande, the ribbon of water that snakes from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. The plateau, covered with junipers, chaparral, and pinons, is poor grazing land for cattle and therefore little used by the people of the Pueblo. My gamble paid off, and I did not meet another human being that day but instead, discovered their ancestors, ghosts of the ancient Anasazi people who lived in the region from about A.D. 1 to A.D. 1300. I walked in their foot paths, worn six to twelve inches deep in the soft tuff by bare and sandal-clad feet (fig. 1). Walking the trails in the hot sun and gentle breezes brought a closeness of spirit with the men, women, and children of that long-ago world. I encountered many shallow caves in the tuff along the base of the cliffs, former homes of the Anasazi. Some of the caves had blackened ceilings. Were they blackened by Anasazi fires or fires from modern hunters? The shape of some caves had been modified for greater comfort--surely by the Anasazi.

    To celebrate my birthday, I spent a relaxed lunch in one of the caves, dozing lazily and gazing at the landscape, imagining the sounds of the children at play and watching the descendants of birds that had entertained them with their songs so many hundreds of years ago. I imagined the laughter and the joys, the shouting and the sorrows, the arguments that swelled now and again. The people played and loved and knew tragedies in their lives on earth. I mused that they had taken their turns at life on this planet from babyhood, to adults, to elders, and finally back to dust, and now it was my turn.

    The entire summer of fieldwork in the open pine forests of the plateaus and canyons around Los Alamos was a delight. Each day in the field was a meditation, reminding me why I had chosen to follow a geological career: to discover relationships of the earth that had been revealed to no one else before.

    I was doing research at Los Alamos because of my interest in pyroclastic flows, which have been the basis of my career and will be discussed throughout the book. Let me give a little scientific background here: Pyroclastic refers to materials that form by explosive processes of volcanoes, one of the main types being volcanic ash, consisting of small pieces of glass, crystals, and rock fragments blown to bits by volcanic explosions. Pyroclastic flows are extremely dangerous, searingly hot, heavier-than-air, hurricanelike density currents made up of abundant particles mixed with volcanic gases exploded from a volcano. These flows are commonly denser than water and flow down valleys. They can travel faster than an atmospheric hurricane over distances greater than a hundred miles. Pyroclastic surges are less dense than pyroclastic flows because they contain fewer particles, but they are just as fast and hot, can move turbulently across water or land, and are not confined to valleys, even flowing across ridges. Ignimbrite is a layer of ash and larger fragments deposited by a pyroclastic flow. Quite often, the source of ignimbrite of great volume is a giant crater known as a caldera (see chapt. 11).

    Each outcrop of ignimbrite that I explored at Los Alamos represented another piece of the puzzle that was contributing to the hypothesis beginning to form in my mind. At the end of the summer, the layer that I followed and described led to a revelation about one facet of the mechanism of emplacement of ignimbrite that had not been clearly stated before. The revelation was this: During the movement of some pyroclastic flows, expanding gases containing fine-to-coarse ash blow out from the top of the pyroclastic flow as it moves. The ash gets caught in the volcanic winds that blow it across the newly formed deposits to construct shapes that look like small sand dunes formed by ordinary winds.

    At age fifty, I was in the middle of my career as a geologist, with several research accomplishments under my belt, and many new projects waiting ahead. It was ironic that my career had started essentially in this same place--Los Alamos--over thirty years earlier.

Suggested Reading

Bandelier, A. F. The Delight Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1918.

Chapter 2


With great shouting and cursing, twenty young U.S. Army recruits and I were verbally lashed into scrubbing the wooden floor of the barracks while the sergeant squirted water on the floor from a hose, commanding us to sweep it uphill across the concrete floor of the latrine. "Get your asses in gear. Dammit!! Move! Move!! Move!!!!" This was our second day at Fort MacArthur Induction Center, San Pedro Harbor, California, and they tried to keep us busy while waiting for assignment to a basic training camp. I was seventeen, and it was January 21, 1946.

    "Fisher!! Get down on your goddam knees and push the water with your hands!!"

    That day went from bad to worse as I plotted how to get out of my next work detail. Hiding from work alternated with getting found and assigned other work duties--cleaning barracks, picking up litter from the ground, sweeping the streets, and whatever else that could be found. I was issued army clothes, was vaccinated, and learned how to make a bed exactly the right way. The corners were tucked in just right, and a coin could bounce from the tight surface at the center of the blanket.

    The induction center was also a mustering-out center for veterans just returning from the South Pacific. The returning veterans of World War II did not have work assignments, so I hung around their barracks trying to look like a war veteran--not easy at seventeen. I got plenty of advice from them about how to avoid work assignments. "Fisher, never volunteer for anything," was the single best piece of advice I received.

    The harassment kept on for two weeks before any hope of rescue came my way. One morning after the 5 o'clock roll call, fifty of the newest recruits were called, including me and two young men who had joined with me. We were ordered to headquarters, where we were told to stand in line and wait to be interviewed.

    "What for?" I asked.

    "Shut up, Fisher," replied the sergeant. "No talking. You'll find out soon enough."

    My turn finally came to enter a small room sparsely furnished with a framed picture of President Truman on the wall, a desk, and a lieutenant sitting stiffly behind it with a list on the table and a pencil in his hand. I saluted as best I could for a new recruit. I took an instant dislike to the officer.

    "What's your name and serial number, private."

    "Fisher, sir. One, nine, two, four, double `oh', seven, eight."

    The lieutenant said, "Would you like to be an MP or a decontaminationist?

    "What are those?" I asked.

    "Sir," he said.

    "Sir! Sorry, sir."

    "MP stands for Military Police. A decontaminationist checks for radioactivity in laboratories. Both jobs are at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they make atom bombs. Which do you want to volunteer for?"

    I remembered the advice about volunteering.

    "Neither, sir," I said.

    "I said, choose one!"

    The ominous tone and the body language were unmistakably hostile. Another bit of advice I had learned from the returning veterans was, "Never argue with an officer."

    I absolutely did not want to be a policeman, but did not want to tell him what I didn't want. I had only one choice, and I lied, for I did not want to be a chemist either. "Sir, when I get discharged from the army, I want to go to college and be a chemist. I would like to work in the laboratories." I became a decontaminationist.

    Without any basic training, I was shipped within a week to Los Alamos (where I would be doing volcano research on ignimbrite thirty-two years later.) I received thirty minutes of instruction on using a Geiger counter and was introduced to my workplace, a group of prefabricated buildings constructed in haste during World War II. The site was an isolated plateau, where scientists perfected an atom bomb intended for use against the Germans. Instead, the bomb was used to kill thousands of Japanese civilians and to hasten the end of the war with the Japanese military forces. My main duty was to check for radioactive areas on laboratory table tops where chemical research was conducted. Using a grease pencil, I would mark the "hot spots" directly on the chemistry lab tables and enter the number of rads per minute onto a form submitted to lab officials at the end of each day. The nuclear chemists and physicists were required to clean the hot spots.

    "God, this is boring," I said. Gene Fox, one of my compatriots from my hometown, Whittier, California, agreed with me. The job was repetitive and did not vary from day to day. I did enjoy the weekends, however, as my friends and I explored the natural caves in the volcanic rocks searching for Indian artifacts, or hiked through the pine forests for the pure joy of exercise and explored the valleys around Los Alamos. Yet I became increasingly restless and bored. I asked for reassignment to Germany and was denied. After three months of grinding boredom, I had an opportunity to become involved with the impending atom bomb tests at Bikini, a coral island atoll just north of the equator. I volunteered for housekeeping and maintenance troops, even though I abhorred KP. As it turned out, I was extremely fortunate not to have been assigned as a decontaminationist. Boarding and monitoring radioactive ships at Bikini turned out to be very dangerous, for the radioactivity permeated every pore of the target ships.

    One of my good friends, Caldwell Jones, signed up with me, and we left Los Alamos for San Francisco on May 18, 1946. By twice breaking the cardinal military edict of "never volunteer," I had serendipitously chosen a path that was to influence my future research career in geology, before I had even discovered geology! On May 24, we boarded the USS Haven, a refitted hospital ship from World War II, and I was assigned to work in the supply room together with another friend from Los Alamos, Wilbur Newton. We issued clothing for men who were to monitor radioactive ships and goggles to scientists and military officers who would watch the atom bomb explosion at Bikini Atoll. We left San Francisco on May 29, arriving in Honolulu on June 5. We left for Bikini Atoll June 6 and arrived June 12.

    At 9:30 A.M., we steamed into the lagoon of Bikini Atoll. I stood at the railing of the ship and watched in amazement as we passed dozens of expendable ships of the U.S. Navy and some captured German and Japanese ships. The target ships included battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, submarines, and many smaller landing craft. The Army Air Force intended to sink them with bombs; the Navy expected the Air Force to fail.

    We were busy right up to the day of the first test, but we still found time to swim a little and play baseball. I collected exotic seashells along the lagoon's beach, and explored the island of Bikini. The highest elevation was fourteen feet, and it took me about twenty minutes to cross the island. My walk wound through a coconut palm forest starting at the calm waters of the lagoon and ending on the seaward side of the island, where huge breakers from rough seas crashed incessantly onto the banks of the coral reef about a half mile offshore.

    On Monday, July 1, "Able Day," the bomb was detonated shortly after 9 A.M. The USS Haven was one of the closest observation ships, but still well over the horizon--we could not see Bikini from our position. Enlisted men were unable to watch the bomb blast because they were not issued the goggles needed to darken the intense light of the bomb, but since I worked in the supply room, I had issued goggles to myself. In anticipation--and as a precaution--I closed one eye in case I was blinded by the blast (I have often wondered how many other men watched the atom bomb explosion with one eye shut!). I could barely see the sun through the goggles, but the fireball created by the bursting atomic bomb was much brighter than the sun for a few seconds. The bomb was detonated at 518 feet above the lagoon. The brilliant hemisphere of light quickly went dark, and I tore the goggles off to watch the explosion plume make a breathtaking ascent into the calm blue morning sky. The plume was copper-colored, and turbulent convolutions were darkly outlined as they enfolded upon one another. At about forty thousand feet, moisture condensed over the top of the mushroom cloud and made a smooth white surface, like the topping of an ice cream cone. The event unfolded like a slow-motion dream.

    The first wave of nontarget fleet vessels reentered Bikini lagoon within two hours to check radioactivity levels of the water, ships, and islands. Five hours after detonation, the rest of the fleet was allowed to enter. A brief announcement on the intercom said that radiological activity was about as expected, but no details were given.

    As we entered the lagoon, we sailed past the aircraft carrier, Independence, which was on fire. The stern of the submarine Skate was crushed. Several ships were burning, and I could see considerable superficial damage on others. The battleship Nevada (painted orange) at the center of the fleet was the target ship, but the bomb inexplicably came down and exploded one-half mile southwest of the Nevada, almost directly above the Independence. Only one side of the Nevada was blackened by the intense heat of the fireball. Incredibly, the bomb had sunk only two of the ninety-five target vessels.

    Activity on the Haven was at a high point as radiological monitors prepared to leave for various ships of the target fleet. Radioactive monitoring of target vessels began by midafternoon of that day. Although the project leaders had assured us that most of the radioactivity had dissipated, I learned that evening that monitoring the ships was extremely dangerous. Harper, one of the radiation monitors, slept in the bunk next to mine. That evening he told me that the Prinz Eugen, a German battleship to which he had been assigned, was very radioactive, and he was certain that he had received a high dosage during his day aboard the ship.

    Within two days after the detonation, the waters of the lagoon, most of the ships, and the beaches were pronounced radioactively safe. Having spent four months monitoring radioactive labs at Los Alamos and attending lectures about the effects of radioactivity on the human body, I wondered how the area could be safe after the detonation of a highly radioactive atom bomb, but I accepted the judgment of the men in authority. As a consequence, from July 3 to July 25, I spent seven of my free days swimming in the waters of the lagoon and lying on the beach near the "Coral Reef Tavern" on Bikini along with dozens of other young men.

    Thursday, July 25 was "Baker Day." The second atom bomb was set off at 8:35 A.M. Goggles were not needed because the bomb was detonated beneath water. It was put in a concrete container and suspended ninety feet beneath a small landing ship. According to my diary, scientists expected a column of water shaped like a "redwood tree" to rise from the lagoon and shoot up to 1,800 feet, and a wave to sweep over the Island. Our ship was to be eight miles from the target, and all the ships within the lagoon would be in sight of the observers aboard the ships outside of the lagoon.

    The events of the blast happened so fast that they are difficult to describe. A few seconds after the column began to rise, I felt the concussion and heard a loud boom, which was not anticipated by the scientists. The column of water looked foamy and was white with vertical sides. It rose to about six thousand feet above the lagoon with a cloud of steam at its top. From around the base of the column, I saw a white line which I thought was a small wave about five feet high. As the column began to fall, a circle of mist moving outward from the base of the column started rolling over the water like a strong wind, engulfing all the ships (Figs. 2A, B). The cloud dispersed after about fifteen minutes, but the mist was still too thick to see the ships, which were all thoroughly drenched in a heavy radioactive fog. The waters of the lagoon had also received a heavy dose of radiation, but the naval fleet returned to anchor within it and distilled drinking water from it. We even took seawater showers in it and were bathed in the spray when traveling in small boats from ship to ship and to Bikini Island for work duty. I thought nothing of it at the time, but shudder about the possible consequences when I think about it today.

    What I had seen was my first base surge, years before I chose to become a volcanologist. This experience was incorporated into my career many years later in my study of pyroclastic flows and the base surges that sometimes form when water and magma mix.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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