Volcano Cowboys by Dick Thompson
The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science

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Twenty years ago, Mt. St. Helens, in Washington State, "blew." It was the volcano's first eruption in recorded time, although as early as 1978 a team of scientists from the US Geological Survey had labeled it "the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range." In June 1991, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth its own mix of ash, gases, mud, lava, and all the other debris that had been building within the mountain for centuries.

Between those two events, USGS scientists had been working at warp speed to learn more about predicting violent eruptions. Data from the nation's only Volcano Center was not helpful. Work there centered on volcanoes that responded to interior pressure by quietly releasing a slow-moving flow of lava, rather than spewing its entrails out in a blast.

Survey members were presented with a rare opportunity when Mt. St. Helens showed signs of activity. Camped on the mountains flanks, daring the crater itself, they dug out rocks, tended recorders, began to learn how to use newly developed instruments. Here was an active volcano, believed to be on the verge of eruption by some, if not all, experts. Along with new instruments they had computer programs that saved them days and weeks of work. They learned techniques that revealed the dates of previous major eruptions and provided patterns for future predictions. After the eruption, studying Mt. St. Helens and other volcanoes, they learned more and more. By the time a newly-active Pinatubo threatened tens of thousands of villagers and the U.S. military's Clark Air Force Base, the men of the USGS were far better able to feel secure in urging local authorities and the Air Force brass to evacuate. It was still a gamble, but the odds were far better. And the work goes on.

Thompson, a veteran science reporter for Time Magazine, spent many hours with the relative handful of scientists whom he calls "volcano cowboys." (Considering their lifestyle and their rugged "laboratories" - the volcanoes themselves -- the sobriquet is earned.) They have loaned him their field notes, and one geologist gave him his as yet unpublished autobiography. The vivid material and Thompson's skill in bringing a good story to life has resulted in a book that celebrates these "cowboys" their tough and hazardous lives and the often harrowing decisions they must make.


About Dick Thompson

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Dick Thompson is an award-winning correspondent for Time Magazine who has reported from the Washington Bureau since 1986. He has covered science, medicine, space and the environment for Time since 1978 from such places as the Amazon, the Soviet Union, India and Los Alamos. Thompson has also covered the White House, Congress, the Panama Invasion, the Gulf War, and the battle for Kabul, Afghanistan. He was a science fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985-86. Thompson and his wife Kristen reside in Arlington, Virginia.
Published July 14, 2000 by Thomas Dunne Books. 336 pages
Genres: History, Nature & Wildlife, Science & Math. Non-fiction

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Beginning with the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980, and concluding with the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, Time reporter Thompson presents all the major players and events in the most explosive ten years in the study of volcanoes.

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Publishers Weekly

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Volcanology is a tricky science because volcanoes blow their stacks infrequently, and one volcano may erupt in a style completely different from a neighboring volcano.

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