“Iceland Eruptions Fuel Interest in Volcanic Gas Monitoring”

This pitch letter is part of The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database, which contains 280 successful pitches to a wide range of publications. To share your own successful pitch, please fill out this form.

The Story

“Iceland Eruptions Fuel Interest in Volcanic Gas Monitoring”
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5977/410.summary [abstract; subscription required for full access]
by Lucas Laursen
Science, April 22, 2010

The Pitch

[Laursen notes: This is a slightly trimmed-down version of the exchanges I had with John Travis while pitching a reporting trip to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in the spring of 2010. I first called John on 30 March 2010 to put the idea to him in very general terms and we developed it via instant messages and email over the next two days. In the text below, ellipses between brackets indicate redactions, most of which dealt with the budget for the trip. I guess the lesson for freelancers is that you don’t have to have it all figured it out the first time if you have editors willing to hear you out. Also, if you’re covering volcanoes, be prepared to wait around. John suggested I stay 2-3 days and I ended up spending about 10.]

From: John Travis Sent: 07:12:28 PM To: Lucas Laursen

Lucas–initial reaction is we’re not sure what story we’d be asking you to do. Dick Kerr “Haven’t seen a particular science angle. It has a history, there was increasing seismic activity before, but the scientists were–rightly–saying they couldn’t predict if or when it might erupt. Talk of possibly triggering a larger eruption from a nearby volcano, but no real record of that ever having happened. Seems pretty routine, other than happening in an accessible location with a lot of volcanologists around.”

So, as much as I don’t want to pass up a neat opportunity, I’d say we’re doubtful without more information on what’s being proposed. We’re open to considering it though. So ball’s back in your court.


From: Lucas Laursen Sent: 31 March 2010 10:57 To: John Travis
Hey John,

Thanks for chatting about Iceland yesterday. I had a conversation with my source there afterwards and think there might be something in one of the things she mentioned: new interest in a gas monitoring system in Iceland. These are currently used in Italy and Hawaii, though they are still fairly new to volcanology, which traditionally used petrology and seismicity/geodesy to study and try to predict eruptions, respectively. She explained that volcanologists are still learning how to reconcile gas and aerosol measurements with their seismic readings to create integrated predictions. Gas volcanologists predicted the 2008 Kilauea eruption, for instance, which the seismic/geodesy guys did not, and according to my source USGS geophysicist Mike Poland said in a heated discussion that if he was wrong about the eruption he’d start doing gas volcanology–at precisely the moment the mountain blew.

Apparently he meant it: his paper on the subject appeared in GRL in August.

The key to making this particular mini-eruption in Iceland newsworthy might be that it could be a setting for a new gas monitoring system. My source’s team met with Iceland’s weather service yesterday, and they expressed interest in installing a gas monitoring network on the island. I’m thinking there might be a bigger story about the integration of modern gas and aerosol monitoring into volcanology and volcano prediction around the world. Improved spectroscopy in the last decade or two has helped, but I imagine it’s partly just a matter of time: gases have always been an important part of volcanology but seismicity is easier to study. The EU funded a global 4-year study of volcano degassing called NOVAC which claimed to develop new tech for studying gas remotely and just completed its study so might look at some of their results, too.

A large joint group from Cambridge and Italy are studying both gases and aerosols from the current Iceland eruption (a small-scale, every-5-year event) as part of their longer-term research projects. Their big-picture goal would be to someday predict roughly how much fluoride might emerge from a given eruption, giving Icelandic farmers an idea of whether to keep their animals from eating contaminated crops or buy gas masks for themselves. The 1783 eruption in Iceland, for instance, killed tens of thousands of Europeans with a poisonous fluoride cloud. Apparently Iceland’s accessibility and latitude also make it useful for studies comparing cold-temperature atmospheric interactions (important in Kamchatka, Alaska, Antarctica, but harder to study there) with temperate and tropical interactions (Italy, Africa, Central America). The chemistry and temperature details affect whether certain eruptions will be explosive, intermittent, or just bubble along: something people who live near volcanoes might like to know. I could talk to the NOVAC guys and call the Iceland weather service people if you and Dick want to know more and think this is worth writing up a proper pitch.

Hope to hear from you soon! Lucas

From: John Travis Sent: Wed 3/31/2010 12:06 PM To: Lucas Laursen
Nice job. You have me intrigued. Let me bounce it over to Dick and the gang for feedback.

From: John Travis Sent: Wed 3/31/2010 3:30 PM To: Lucas Laursen Feedback from Dick:
Dick: He certainly has a good grasp of the science. The interest in gas emissions may indeed be accelerating and pointing toward getting a better grasp on eruption forecasting, but I don’t imagine the story would be more than a page. The gas types have long been the cowboys of volcanology. Putting in the monitors got several of them killed or seriously wounded down at Galeras in Columbia about 10 years ago when they ignored warnings from seismologists. The problem is that just about every volcano is different, or there are a large number of types of eruptions. Either way, makes it tricky.

So, what are you pitching? Given Dick’s feedback—him saying the gas work isn’t “crazy”!–Colin says he would be open to a 1 page story, and even wonders if you could have it ready for Monday. if you’re pushing for something else i.e. longer, we’d have to chat more. If a trip to Iceland is necessary, we’d need to know costs and timing *…+ If you’re focusing on the science (which you should), would a trip be necessary?

From: Lucas Laursen Sent: 01 April 2010 09:53 To: John Travis
Morning John,
Thanks again for this feedback yesterday and chatting on the phone. I’ve dug around a little more and I’m going to make the case for visiting Iceland from 8—19th or so of April. Part of it hinges on the fact that Science already ran a 1-pager by Rich Stone saying roughly: ‘gas monitoring is here but we don’t know what it will do’ –in 2001. So I think to move the story forward we need more space to examine what’s been done in the intervening years in various different geographies and to examine why, as Dick put it, each volcano is different, and how that could actually teach us something, as my source suggests.
Exclusivity: Nature could’ve run something this week if they wanted to beat you guys. If they were really jumpy they would’ve done it online AOP, same as they did my Facebook exclusive. I also told my sources I might take this to either Science or Nature, and they didn’t say ‘oh but we’re already talking to Nature.’ Another reason to make the story cover more geographical ground and a narrower discipline: less chance they’ll run exactly the same story, which would use Iceland as a colorful starting point, but focus on global gas monitoring networks and how far they’ve come in the last decade.
Timing: If I go to Iceland late next week I could file by Monday the 19th: slow for news,
fresh for features.
Costs: I ballpark expenses at around 1000GBP for airfare, lodgings, food, and local transport.

Justification for 2 pages: if we want to examine the state of gas monitoring, including a decade’s worth of research results from sites around the world and commentary on those results, we’ll need more than one page. After leading with the Iceland eruption and current talk about building a gas monitoring network there, I’d want to go back to the starting point: the Montserrat eruption in 1999 (which Rich mentioned in 2001), then the Hawaii eruption in 2008, and finally the ongoing Etna and Stromboli monitoring since 2001 including a March 2010 Stromboli eruption. Each of these eruptions has added something to the science, and there are publications from the last few years that we can discuss. Also look at the breadth of list of collaborators on the NOVAC project: Baltimore, Guatemala, Congo, Mexico, Italy, France, Sweden, and more (http://www.novac-project.eu/partners.htm). This is widespread and it’s attracting money in a field of public interest so it merits a serious dissection by asking scientists across volcanology whether it’s worth the money. Integrating gas monitoring into models originally built on seismic data may not be straightforward, but we can ask researchers how well (or badly) their first attempts worked in the mid-2000s and see how they’re adapting in second- generation attempts. It was too early for Rich to ask some of these questions in 2001: but now we can actually examine results from different regions and pass some kind of judgement.
There’d be no excuse for “it’s early days”-type quotes in this story.
Gas monitoring is good for more than just helping predict eruptions: Gas monitoring networks can serve as ground-truthing for satellite measurements of volcanic emissions, for instance, offering another level of fast remote monitoring, even if that might be at lower resolution.
Doing this in places like Iceland could help calibrate satellites used to study volcanoes in more remote locations or even other planets.
There’s something to be learned from comparing different kinds of volcanoes and eruptions, particularly since volcanoes in different climates interact with the atmosphere in different ways—something in which climatologists might be interested.
Gas emissions also tells us something about plate tectonics: one study of gasses in Central American volcanoes estimated rates of chemical recycling in subduction zones (Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 2006).
So I’m proposing an overview of gas monitoring now, using Iceland as the entry point, Rich’s article as the scientific starting point, and the last ten years of research as a mine in which to search for evidence of what gas monitoring has contributed to volcanology, primarily from the point of view of what it can tell people about eruptions but also for its other environmental applications.
If you guys balk at 2 pages and expenses, forget the expenses, but there just seems to be too much rich material since the 2001 Rich Stone story to just write one page, and as I outlined above I think you don’t need to really sweat a Nature scoop. I’ve put in requests to chat with some researchers in Iceland and Italy—so let me know if you have questions but I think I know what I need to ask them. A couple highlights from ADS below.
Chat this afternoon? Lucas

Network for Observation of Volcanic and Atmospheric Change (NOVAC)—A global network for volcanic gas monitoring: Network layout and instrument description. Journal of Geophysical Research 2010
Kilauea summit activity during 2007-2008: A failed eruption and an eruption that should have failed. AGU Fall meeting abstract 2008
Spectroscopic evidence for a lava fountain driven by previously accumulated magmatic gas. Nature 2005
Optical monitoring of volcanic sulphur dioxide emissions-comparison between four different remote-sensing spectroscopic techniques. Optics and Lasers in Engineering 2002
Gas and particle emissions from Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat, West Indies: characterization and health hazard assessment. Bulletin of Volcanology 2000

From: John Travis Sent: Thu 4/1/2010 11:02 AM To: various Science editors and reporters, Lucas Laursen copied
As expected, here’s Lucas’ pitch for 2 pages. Seems a reasonable one—we might push a staff member to do it as news, especially when we’re needy on news, but as a freelancer feature pitch, I’d probably vote yes (and I appreciate him noting Rich’s 2001 story which I wasn’t aware of—though I agree that it doesn’t undercut a story now).


From: John Travis Sent 05:47:36 PM
dick’s funny comment: If the story is half as good as the pitch, it would be worth the travel expenses. To his credit, he’s upfront with the fact that he doesn’t know what the story is– increased attention to gas emissions either is paying off or it isn’t. I’d be more comfortable with knowing which it is going in, but if we can live with that uncertainty, I’m sure he’ll come back with an acceptable story. And 2 pages seems right with the scope he’s laid out.

Skip to content