“Braving Iceland’s Volcano”
by Lucas Laursen
Financial Times Weekend Magazine, May 21, 2010
[Laursen notes: By the time I pitched this, I’d completed my reporting trip and published a story from it for Science, so I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to tell my next story about the volcano. I’d also had a look at the FT Weekend’s very thorough feature pitch guidelines and I tried to address each item in their guidelines with a section of this pitch. If I hadn’t seen their guidelines I might have kept the first pitch shorter and waited for questions from the editor.
I think the published story more or less kept to the issues I raised in this pitch. That’s unusual for features—I usually pitch before I’ve done my heavy reporting and the story often morphs during that phase and the editing phase. Probably my thinking was more focused this time because it was essentially my second round of storytelling working from the same core material.]
Thanks again for passing me your commissioning note Friday. To briefly introduce myself, I write about science research and policy for magazines
such as Nature, Science, Nature Biotechnology (whose news editor suggested I approach the FT), and consumer-facing magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American. Clips on http://lucaslaursen.com.
I returned from Iceland last week, where I was covering volcano monitoring systems as used on Eyjafjallajökull for Science Magazine (feature here: http://lucaslaursen.com/clips/eyjafjallajokull.pdf). I noticed that a lot of
the coverage understandably focused on how aviation authorities might make their ash-related flight bans less black-and-white. They might install
lasers at weather stations to detect ash densities, the thinking goes, or conduct engineering tests to see what levels of ash jet engines can tolerate. That will certainly be part of the solution. But I haven’t seen much written about the root of the problem: the type of eruption at the
volcano, which has a major impact on whether and for how long the volcano will send ash into airways.
My story for Science focused on gas monitoring, but I learned that volcanologists are testing half a dozen different tools, some adapted from military equipment, to try to better predict and characterize eruptions.
They told me that the chemistry of the magma and the shape of the volcano and how much ice covers it all determine how explosive eruptions become and how high the ash will fly. When the eruption on Eyjafjallajökull began on 20 March, they flocked to the volcano to sample rocks, gas, glacier runoff and
did flyovers with brand-new radar and infrared instruments. I tagged along on two field trips and spoke with a dozen Icelandic volcanologists and others in Italy, the Azores and Hawaii.
I propose an overview of the budding, uncertain art of high-tech, real-time volcano monitoring using the ongoing Eyjafjallajökull eruption as the news peg and the field trips, also still ongoing, as narrative devices. The
volcano is my central character, I suppose, but I interviewed so many researchers that I can use them to interpret the volcano’s language for the FT’s readers. These researchers listen closely to seismic stations, which
let them pinpoint magma-induced earthquakes 10 kilometers below the surface, and sniff chemicals such as fluorine in the ash cloud, which can harm farm animals. They have furious debates at the university and weather office over
the effect of a change in lava viscosity on the duration of the ash cloud. There is a certain drama in caring so much and knowing so little about what a volcano will do, despite their very serious efforts.
There was more than a little frustration among Icelandic scientists, for instance, when Iceland’s president practically threatened Europe with an eruption from Eyjafjallajökull’s big sister Katla last week, for instance.
As usual, it’s more complicated than that, but I’m in the business of
writing clear explanations of science research and how the rest of us can or cannot use its results. The FT has plenty of news coverage of the volcano (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/fec9a452-4f38-11df-b8f4-00144feab49a.html for starters) but so far as I can tell has not published anything by a reporter embedded with volcanologists for an extended period, as I was. I could have something short to medium (1600-2300 words, judging from your commissioning note) for you within a couple days of getting the go-ahead. I already have
photos from m2y field trips (half a dozen highlights here: http://picasaweb.google.com/lucas.laursen/IcelandSamples?authkey=Gv1sRgCLjep 97atLiw_QE#slideshow/5464393744998216690 [Updated for The Open Notebook on 21/8/11: That was a temporary album. My final Iceland album is now at https://picasaweb.google.com/100630316774918797853/Iceland%5D) and could get more photos from scientists and an Icelandic photographer I know as needed. I’m keen on making this a strong visual piece.
I look forward to hearing what you think of this idea and how we might make it work for FT Weekend. I’m also happy to ring you at your convenience to discuss.
Best regards, Lucas Laursen