Cover image for Volcano cowboys : the rocky evolution of a dangerous science
Volcano cowboys : the rocky evolution of a dangerous science
Thompson, Dick.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 326 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QE521 .T48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



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 ofprevious 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.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

People living near a volcano are loathe to leave when the cone starts coughing. To the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) falls the duty of telling them the risks they run by staying put, a duty that, as Thompson here chronicles it, often imperils the vulcanologists. To predict an eruption, they must clamber over the smoking beast to set up instruments, which has cost many their lives. Thompson's story centers on two eruptions: Mount St. Helens in 1980 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991. From his detailed reportage, it becomes clear that Mount St. Helens was the USGS's first experience with public officials demanding certainty in an eruption prediction, averse as they were to ordering an unnecessary evacuation. But all the experts could offer were inferences, deduced from tiltmeters, laser rangers, seismographs, and gas sampling. Flipping to Mount Pinatubo, Thompson reports a USGS more seasoned in conveying its expertise to the U.S. Air Force, which had to know when to abandon a base in the Philippines. An informative book about science's communication with the lay public. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

The day before Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, releasing "the largest landslide in human history," U.S. Geological Survey scientists had no inkling that the volcano was close to blowing outÄeven though a network of high-tech instruments girdled the mountain, monitoring its vital signs. The heated debate among survey scientists over what the volcano would do next after the first rumblings was kept hidden from the public, as Time staff writer Thompson reveals. Fifty-seven people were killed, and the cataclysm devastated a 230-square-mile area. Unlike other volcano books, this engrossing field report offers an unusually candid look at the learning curve men and women travel as they practice the messy, ego-driven, error-riddled pursuit called science. Happily, reports Thompson, volcanology made significant strides between the Mt. St. Helens disaster and the 1991 explosion of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. Although Pinatubo killed more than 200 people (mostly from roof collapses), 80,000 lives were saved thanks to an evacuation. 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. Figuring out these molten dynamicsÄin cataclysms from Indonesia to ColombiaÄare daredevil scientists whom Thompson dubs "volcano cowboys." They perch their outdoor labs on smoldering peaks, often risking their lives to get gas samples from fuming vents. Among the cowboys are Harry Glicken, an eccentric itinerant volcano-landslide expert killed in a Japanese eruption in 1991, and seismologist/ex-Vietnam marine Dave Harlow, the "Indiana Jones of volcanology." Decked out with remarkable photographs, this solid report captures the human drama of a dangerous science. Agent, Kris Dahl. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

"Volcano cowboys"-that is what the U.S. Geological Survey geologists at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory call themselves, and not without reason. Studying an active volcano is like riding a bucking bronco. Researchers work around deadly hazards such as poisonous gas, hot lava, flying rocks called "pyroclastics," and landslides, and they don't always get out alive. Thompson, a staff reporter for Time magazine, has written a truly exciting account of the evolution of volcanology from a rough-and-tumble science to a more accurate discipline. In 1979, when Mount St. Helens began to rumble, the Volcano cowbows were called in to monitor the situation. Used to dealing with data sets and long-term studies, the scientists found themselves in the center of a media circus and could only offer probabilities and speculation. Despite their best warnings, 60 people still died. In 1991 volcanologists were able to predict the eruption of Pinatubo in the Phillipines, resulting in the evacuation of 35,000 people tow days before the mountain actually exploded. Published on the 20th anniversary of the St. Helens eruption, this is one of the best science books of the year. For all science collections.-Amy Brunvand, Univ. of Utah Lib., Salt Lake City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.