Earth science prof gets NSF award for work on volcanic ash

A better way to predict explosive volcanoes that would produce an ash cloud, also known as a volcanic plume, is the focus of a UO researcher who recently won a National Science Foundation award.

The prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award went to associate professor Thomas Giachetti, of the Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Career Award, which provides $752,726 over five years, will support Giachetti’s research project “Detailed Distributions of Tephra Fall Characteristics: Insights Into Magma Fragmentation and Transport via Volcanic Plumes.” The project will focus on quantifying ash characteristics and making the connections between ash and eruptive processes.

According to Giachetti, volcanic plumes can cause serious problems for air traffic, the global economy and the climate, which is why predicting where ash will fall is important. Using the Cascade Mountains as a case study, Giachetti will apply his streamlined methodology to deposits from past eruptions.

“I would hope that with this work we'll be able to better predict where and when ash will fall during the next big explosive eruption,” Giachetti said. “It could improve the warning to potentially affected communities, to enable them to anticipate a few hours in advance whether you may receive an inch or two of volcanic material of a certain size ... to be able to say shelter or evacuate.”

The project will address limitations of previous studies by streamlining and standardizing the analysis of the physical characteristics of rock fragments to better assess the importance of breakup rock fragments from impact and improve tephra transport and deposition models.

Giachetti’s project also features community engagement. In his journey across the Cascades, he will visit high schools in rural and tribal areas in Oregon and Washington. The educational project will raise student awareness of volcanic eruptions and ash deposits close to home.

Giachetti hopes that teaching the younger generation will increase overall community awareness of areas that might be affected by future explosive eruptions.

“At the end of the project, the goal is for the students to give a presentation to a general audience in a local community center, public library and the like,” Giachetti said. “So they themselves will explain what they've learned over the past few years to their family and friends and people in their community. “

The funding from the Career Award also will allow Giachetti and his team breathing room. Because the grant is spread over the five years, he doesn’t feel as much pressure “to write the next research proposal quickly.” Rather, he said he can start focusing more on his research and his team, "hiring new students and creating new dynamics.”

—By McKenzie Days, College of Arts and Sciences