New volcanology hire brings fluid dynamics to research team

Lava flowing to sea

Humans have long been captivated by the awesome power of volcanoes. UO volcanologist Joe Dufek’s interest goes much deeper.

An expert in the fluid dynamics of geological processes, he studies the physics of volcanoes to better understand the forces that are at work, both inside and out, and seeks answers to questions like “How can viscous magma transform into explosive pyroclastic currents?”

Joe Dufek“You go from something that’s traveling at less than a meter per second to something that’s supersonic,” Dufek said. “That’s fluid dynamics at its most extreme and that’s what fascinates me.”

A senior faculty hire in the UO’s Department of Earth Sciences who arrives on campus this month from Georgia Institute of Technology, Dufek is a high-profile addition to the Volcanology Cluster of Excellence. That initiative launched in July 2016 when Gwendolyn and Charles Lillis made a major gift to endow faculty positions for two expert researchers.

The cluster, which includes director Paul Wallace and a number of other faculty members in earth sciences, will leverage the UO’s prominence in volcanology to increase research activity and elevate its reputation as a national leader in the field.

Wallace, a professor and head of the Department of Earth Sciences, described Dufek as a world leader in developing computational models of volcanoes.

“These models help us understand how volcanoes work and have real-life applications to predicting eruptions and mitigating volcanic hazards,” Wallace said. “Joe’s presence will make the UO one of the top institutions in the world for studying active volcanoes and their impacts on society.”

By gaining a better understanding of volcanoes inside and out, researchers in the cluster will focus on new technologies to monitor volcanoes to help protect people and infrastructure worldwide. Their research could benefit the estimated 600 million people who are at direct risk from volcanoes and provide valuable knowledge to others who are indirectly affected, such as the commercial airline industry.

“When a volcano erupts, it produces volcanic ash, which is mostly volcanic glass and that’s very bad for jet engines,” Dufek explained. “You really want to try to avoid flying through it at all costs and to do that you need to know where the volcanic ash is in the atmosphere and you need to be able to predict where it is going. To understand the physics of these processes requires a combination of computational studies, laboratory experiments and careful field measurements.”

Dufek relies on big numerical simulations that will require the full power of UO’s new Research Advanced Computing Services. The high-performance computing center recently expanded the capacity of its supercomputer, Talapas, partly to accommodate Dufek’s research. To help get Dufek’s research off the ground at the UO, the center performed a high-speed transfer of his research data from Georgia Tech.

The computing center will also help Dufek’s wife, Carol Paty, establish her data-intensive research program at the UO. Although Paty is not directly tied to the volcanology cluster, she will be contributing to the UO’s expertise in earth sciences and pioneering some new areas of research.

A faculty member in the Clark Honors College and the Department of Earth Sciences, Paty specializes in space physics and planetary physics and conducts research funded by NASA.

Much of Dufek’s research is funded by federal grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, but additional funding from the Lillis’ gift to the Volcanology Cluster will allow him and others greater latitude to explore.

“It allows us to be a little more aggressive in some of our approaches than we might otherwise be, which I think is very exciting,” Dufek said. “I share (Chuck Lillis’) interest in seeing this cluster grow to be a national center of excellence.”

Dufek is in the process of building three labs on campus. Two labs will be located in UO’s Volcanology Building — one devoted to characterizing large geophysical flows and includes a flume and one devoted to sensors and other electronics. A lab in Cascade Hall will be outfitted with experiments that explore the role of compressible and turbulent fluid dynamics in natural flows.

Dufek also does fieldwork examining the deposits from past eruptions in Chile, Ecuador, Greece and the Pacific Northwest. Increasingly, he says, volcanologists are relying on sensors placed around active eruptions. In the next five years, the UO will build up a detailed sensor network that will record valuable information about explosive eruptions for researchers.

“Volcanology has been very important at the University of Oregon for many years," Dufek said, explaining his attraction to the UO. “It’s also known as a place where there is intense faculty collaboration and interaction. There’s a sense of community that is a big draw.”

Dufek will begin teaching at the UO in spring 2019. He will teach courses in fluid dynamics, physical volcanology and natural hazards. Looking ahead to the future, he says it’s an exciting time for volcanology at the UO. There is a high level of interest in the field and new areas of discovery are emerging, such as research examining volcanoes on other planets throughout the solar system.

Turning back to the question of what makes volcanoes so fascinating, Dufek says there’s the obvious draw of their power and potential for hazard and danger. Not only are volcanoes dramatic, he says, but they tell a story that unfolds at a pace we can easily appreciate.

“So much of what we see in terms of geological processes is slow — so slow that I think it’s hard to grasp,” Dufek said. “A volcanic eruption is a geologic process that happens on human time scales and I think that makes it more immediate.”

—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications