WI Gregg

University of Illinois geology Professor Patricia Gregg.

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Each week, staff writer Paul Wood profiles a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet PATRICIA GREGG, a University of Illinois geologist who is co-author of research with a team that has developed new computer models to help researchers better forecast volcanic eruptions — which could help save thousands of lives.

Where did you get your doctorate and what attracted you to the University of Illinois?

I earned my Ph.D. in Marine Geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I was attracted to Illinois by the amazing scientists, community and outstanding computational infrastructure. When I first visited the UI, I was immediately struck by the wonderful culture of the campus, which is humble and supportive while being a world-class research institution.

How did you become interested in researching volcanoes?

My father is also a geology professor, and I grew up exploring the world around me through that lens. My first experience with volcanology was visiting the Yellowstone supervolcano with my family as a child. I remember being awestruck by Old Faithful and the vastness of the volcanic system. In the mid-1980s, we took a family trip to see the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens and I was captivated by the destruction of the blast. I don’t doubt for a second that having a father who was passionate about geology greatly influenced my career trajectory.

Who is your co-author? Who else is on the team?

The lead author of this study is my Ph.D. student, John “Jack” Albright. He is an outstanding young scholar and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Jack joined our team from his undergraduate studies in geology and mathematics at Pomona College in California. Our co-authors are also Professor Zhong Lu from Southern Methodist University and Professor Jeffrey Freymueller from Michigan State University.

Why do ash clouds rise so high, and how do they interfere with air traffic?

The height of an eruption column is related to the explosivity of the eruption or the force behind that eruption and the size of the eruption vent. Some highly explosive eruptions collapse into pyroclastic flows (such as the iconic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius) while others are focused by the eruption vent into vertical columns of ash (plinian eruptions). The ash clouds are very dangerous to fly through as they can destroy jet engines and limit visibility. You probably remember how devastating the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was to European air traffic.

How can you find the likelihood of an eruption when there are little to no signs?

The key is that there has to be some observable activity, whether it’s swelling of the ground or gas emission or seismicity. If there is no unrest signal, then there is no way to provide a forecast. However, what looks like very little unrest to us may actually be something that is statistically significant. In our approach, we run hundreds of models simultaneously to build a probability distribution that explores the probability of the magma system failing. This allows us to evaluate changes in a volcanoes activity. We are currently working with our collaborators to develop ways to link these probabilities to quantify eruption likelihood.

Did you use Blue Waters?

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications has been very supportive of our forecasting efforts. While the application at Okmok did not use supercomputing resources, several of our other studies have directly benefitted from these facilities.

You looked at the Okmok volcano in Alaska. A large eruption sent an ash plume about 1 mile into the sky over the Aleutian Islands in 2008, Is that the one that disrupted air traffic by creating possible hazard to aircraft engines? I also seem to remember a more recent one.

Alaska is home to more than 40 active volcanoes and there are frequently explosive eruptions from these volcanoes that disrupt air traffic. Some other recent eruptions have occurred from Cleveland Volcano, Bogoslof and Veniaminof. The Alaska Volcano Observatory keeps an excellent up-to-date list of restless volcanoes and their current threat levels.

Geologists look for patterns of unrest but volcanoes like Okmok don’t seem to follow these established patterns. Why not?

This is a great question, and one we are actively exploring.

What agencies provided financial aid?

NASA and NSF provided support for our work at Okmok. The NCSA and Blue Waters provided support for our broader work on volcano forecasting.


Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I am a level 39 “Pokemon Go” trainer. My mom (who is level 38) and I like to play together almost daily. Although she lives in Oklahoma, we chat on the phone while we walk and look for Pokemon. I also enjoy playing with my students. Last spring, we had to take a break from our Trashcano experiment because of a sudden rainstorm. While we waited for the rain to clear up, a group of my students and I completed a “Pokemon Go” raid together.

And other media? I love listening to podcasts. My current favorite podcast is “Tea for Teaching,” which is an excellent weekly discussion of innovative teaching practices.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? When I’m home, I prefer physical books. When I travel, I always load up my e-reader. I occasionally use my Kindle, but I love checking out e-books on the OverDrive App through the Champaign Public Library. I’m currently rereading the Harry Potter series with my 9-year-old. Hopefully, once the term calms down a bit, I will be able to pick up a new book for myself. I’m looking for suggestions!

Reporter (retired)

Paul Wood retired as a reporter in 2019 after 38 years with The News-Gazette.

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