Dr Liz Gaunt, Volcanologist

Rock can tell us so much if only we take the time to look.

Dr Liz Gaunt, Volcanologist

Geologist & Volcanologist Dr. Elizabeth Gaunt is keeping communities safe from volcanoes.

Liz is undertaking post-doctoral research for at the Ecuadorian Geophysical institute, researching volcanic processes and exploring methods for forecast volcanic activity. We met up in London to talk about Britain’s geological history and share our passions for stone as a living material shaping our lives.

Liz, how did you first get into geology?

I fell in love with Geology at A-level and followed through into undergraduate degree, driven by a fascination with how landforms work. This led to completing PHD at UCL measuring the permeability of volcanic rock and what this permeability can tell us about how volcanic gases escape to improve our understanding of volcanic processes and our ability to forecast volcanic eruptions.

Though not so common in the in the UK, Volcanoes really shape and threaten life on this planet. If Yellowstone were to erupt fully the world will be in volcanic winter. Dramatic as that sounds,  Yellowstone could have a small eruption tomorrow and we might not even notice. At the moment we have very little idea what will happen in an eruption, which is why it is a fascinating area to study.

My basic understanding is that there are several different ways rocks are made, and that all of these are present in the UK?

That’s right. Rock is formed in different ways.  Our limestones and sandstones are formed by sediment being layered down so that eventually those at the bottom are compressed. Ignous rock is molten rock that has solidified. These two types of rocks can then be metamorphosed, though pressure and heat  – doesn’t have to be both. Heat and or compression can change the structure but not melt it, through changing the minerals in the rock to form metamorphic rocks

A bit like when superman crushes the coal into a diamond for Lois Lane?

Yes, a bit like that.

The geology of the UK has a bit of everything and depending on where you are, it includes some very exceptional examples. At the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall wall you can find a rock called Serpentanite, a rock from the Earth’s Mantle that has been pushed all the way to the surface. The Mantle is the original starting material, what all rocks are made out of. Mantle rocks are rarely found at the surface, which makes this an incredibly interesting rock to study.

All rocks are laid down flat and depending on where you are in the county, you’ll see folds – where rocks have been crumpled like a concertina over millions of years. The UK has been thought at least two mountain building phases, when continents literally collided. Scotland has some of the most unique and amazing geology, extremely old rock found at the surface next to rocks that are much younger from continents thrusting into each other. The Moine thrust has pushed some extremely old rocks right on the surface above much younger rocks.  This is just one of the reasons why scientists from all over the world visit the UK to study our geology.

Something I’m struggling with is a sense of scale when talking about rock or stone. It’s a material that is almost everywhere and millions of years old. One of the areas my own work will explore is allowing people to have a meaningful connection with stone. How do you have sense of scale when working with something so magnificent?

Well, specializing in Volcanoes is at times terrifying. One of the ways we get a sense of scale is to look from a distance or from above. We didn’t know Yellowstone was a super volcano until it was seen from space. To help to forecast the risk from volcanic activity involves understanding magma – molten rock which when unstable leads to pyroclastic flows, which is what happened to Pompeii . Rocks and lava moving like an avalanche at 300 meters a second, flowing on a gas layer.

My work looks at what are the structures in the rock that control fluid movement. For my doctorate I devised lab-based experiments that investigated how temperature and pressure affected fluid movement. Now I’m working in Ecuador, I get to apply this lab-based study in a practical environment. Scale in relation to rock is indeed interesting. People outside my profession are often surprised that I spend my days looking at structures in volcanic rock that are just millimeters in scale to understand these vast geological forms.

And there is an interesting contrast there about how your work focuses on understanding rock, or molten rock flowing as magma as a lethal force. Yet in my own work, people often associate stone as a way of commemorating people who have died – enshrining and memorializing. We tend to see it as inert, yet it has formed so much of how we shape our lives and how we want our lives to be remembered.

I’ve been thinking about how in the UK – a country that has this amazing range and resource of natural stone, people lack a personal connection to this material that has shaped our lives and culture. Rock has given us shelter, from our earliest history to today, but I have a feeling that we lack a modern connection to rock.

Totally. No one sees our geology, we don’t have earthquakes and volcanoes, we don’t fear it. Everything is covered in grass. Snowden and Ben Nevis are volcanic in origin, yet people don’t associate volcanism with England. We have extinct super volcanoes her for example Glen Coe in Scotland, but is not noticed – nothing happens, you can’t see it, why would you take notice of it?

But in our cites we use a spectacular range of rock as stone has been used in building material not just for it’s structural properties but also for its colour and texture. Leeds is a good example of this and to me, it’s really interesting that something that would have been really expensive to source and shape is used to decorate  and ornament buildings.  I wonder who came up with what makes rocks pretty or a valuable adornment and how is that connected to their scarcity or their aesthetic properties

And interesting to jump between these points of hidden super volcanoes which have formed our geography, and in turn how we live, and perhaps identify with our landscape – and using stone in a visually decorative way, literally on show for all to see.

One can tell a lot about a stone from looking at it – you can deduct so much, understand the life it’s had – it records everything that has happened to it.

And it’s life is key, we think about it as an inert material, yet we just don’t have a sense of our life scale against the millions of years that stone has as a lifetime.

Exactly. To the scientific community, looking at a rock closely tells us so much. You can tell so much by looking at stone and the processes it has been through to be a stone on a beach that you can pick up and throw into the sea. To me that’s the truth that is ‘set in stone’ A lot of people wonder why I am so fascinated about rock. Fact is, rock can tell us so much if only we take the time to look.

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