Mercyhurst, Vanderbilt research targets supervolcanoes

October 22, 2013

The National Science Foundation has awarded Mercyhurst and Vanderbilt universities a $354,000 grant to engage students in researching one of Earth's rarest yet deadliest acts -- the eruption of a supervolcano.

The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) three-year project will take 10-12 students per year into northwest Arizona to study an extinct supervolcano. Students will select their own research pursuit, follow up with lab work at either Mercyhurst or Vanderbilt and, ultimately, present their findings at a national conference.

"The emphasis of this project is to engage students in scientific research, which is consistent with Mercyhurst's commitment to hands-on learning," said principal investigator Nick Lang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of geology at Mercyhurst. His project colleague at Vanderbilt is Lily Claiborne, Ph.D.

Lang said the research initiative targets students from diverse backgrounds. "We are looking for talented students, with a particular emphasis on returning veterans, first-generation college students and minorities who will do original research and contribute to the large body of work on supervolcanoes," he said.

Comprehending what led to supereruptions in the past is essential to understanding and predicting similar events. A supereruption, Lang said, is a volcanic explosion that erupts a volume of material greater than 1,000 km3. This can be about a thousand times larger than normal volcanic eruptions. The deadly 1980 Mount St. Helens explosion, for instance, ejected only 1 cubic km3 of volcanic material, Lang said.

The 10-12 students chosen to participate in each of the three years will hone their geology field skills by investigating the Silver Creek caldera, which produced the Peach Spring Tuff (PST) supereruption nearly 19 million years ago. The PST is exposed over 32,000 km² of western Arizona, southeastern California and southern Nevada.

Students studying the region's geologic record will guide their research around questions like: What does a supervolcano look like before it erupts? How and why do large magmatic systems change over time? How does supereruptive magmatism (ex., PST) compare with typical-scale magmatism (ex., Mt.St. Helens)?

Lang said he is eager to get started on the research, which will begin in late December or early January in Arizona followed by another field session in the summer. Students will also complete their lab work during the summer, attending either Mercyhurst or Vanderbilt.

"This is an exciting opportunity for us because these grants (National Science Foundation) are difficult to obtain," Lang said. "The success rate for a project to be funded is 20 to 25 percent."
Applications for the program are now being accepted. More information can be found at:

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