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11 December, 2001

Weather report: I woke up today sweltering. I fully expected to get out of my tent to a 60 degree day. I woke up completely out of my sleeping bag, and warm as toast. The secret is; no wind, sunshine, and getting used to it. Wind speed: 3 knots. Temperature: negative 11 degrees C (one of the warmest days the leaders of this party remember during a field season). We headed up the mountain for radioactive isotope gas collection and some seismic station upgrading. Beautiful.

The afternoon and evening provided the best experience of the day. The mapping of ice fumeroles around the circumference of Erebus has become something of a research priority. It is great fun. The deal is that volcanoes don't just spit out of one handy opening, like every volcano model that you've ever seen in a science fair. They emit gases from all sorts of places around their sides, and the genesis of this heat and gas is under suspicion. It could be from a young lave flow (1884). It could be from fissures within the edifice of the mountain itself. The actual source of heat could be the proximity of the magma chamber, but we are still learning. So what do you do? You gather data. You map the whole system of fumeroles spewing their gases and look for a pattern around the mountain. GPS (see yesterday) is an awesome tool here.

Emily Desmerais straps on a field pack that contains state-of-the-art GPS hardware, and we begin a planned hike; photographing, taking notes, and all the while Emily is punching in coordinates that map the field of volcanic activity exactly. Back to the hut, hooked up to a laptop, and the mysterious "collapse fields" and ice caves are resolved to a real map. This is cool.

This also sheds a little light on how science is sometimes done. Students; look at a textbook description of how the Scientific Method proceeds. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes you have to look for windows of opportunity to gather data. If someone has a bright idea about degassing from side fissures in magma systems around volcanoes, they can't just stroll outside and check it out. So we take the availability at our fingertips and gather the information that we can--hopefully figuring it out later.

I would say that this little exercise was not without risk. Everywhere we went, we had to jab around with our ice axes to make sure that we were not walking over some slight ceiling of an ice cave that might collapse under weight. It turned out that we were in fact walking over an extensive honeycomb of heat-generated spaces between ice cover and rock. Safety first, and cautious advances.

What will be the result of this research? We don't know. What a great opportunity to get out and explore--recording all the while--to see just how this whole system works.

Emily Desmerais logs the location of what appears to be an insignificant fumerole. Upon investigation, the opening was a gateway into a vast sub-surface void.

This is an other-worldy place. We learned today to recognize areas of collapse. Fumeroles are separated by areas of domes and pits that indicate heat carving a place for itself just under the surface. Exploration is done with great care.

Dr. Jeff Johnson ascends a fumerole at the end of the day.

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