To Know the Volcano

A childhood interest in volcanoes led Pablo Ruiz Cubillo to pursue research that can be exciting, compelling—and very dangerous.

Early Rumblings

Long before he came to Rutgers, volcanoes fascinated Pablo Ruiz Cubillo: “I grew up in Costa Rica, and there it’s common to go to see a volcano and spend a day. We’re surrounded by them. Of course, as soon as I visited Poás [Volcano National Park], I had lots of questions, ‘How does a volcano happen? When does it erupt?’ ” he recalls.

To understand volcanoes and get an even closer look, Pablo studied geology in the Central America School of Geology at the University of Costa Rica. He wrote his bachelor’s thesis on the Poás Volcano and eventually earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in geology.

Research Connection

So when Michael Carr, a professor of geological sciences in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick, was in Costa Rica in June 2006, recruiting for a research team to study the Poás Volcano, Guillermo Alvarado, Pablo’s volcanology professor in Costa Rica, recommended him.

“I was happy to study the Poás Volcano again, but this time in more detail and with better equipment and new analyses. The experience led me to apply to the graduate program at Rutgers,” says Pablo, who began his doctoral studies in geology in 2007.

Since then, Pablo’s interest in studying volcanoes has taken him to Nicaragua, Argentina, and Italy.
 

  • Volcano in Poas
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Poás

    My research focuses on Poás Volcano in Costa Rica. This is a view from the north side of the main crater of Poás. The steam is coming from a volcanic structure called a dome.

  • Cinchona Earthquake
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Cinchona Earthquake

    I was conducting research in Costa Rica in January 2009 when the Cinchona earthquake struck. It caused hundreds of landslides, like this one on Road 126, rendering roads impassable.

  • Cinchona Earthquake
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Road Damage

    Road 126 was so damaged by the January 2009 Cinchona earthquake that the Costa Rican government decided not to repair it but instead built a new road in a nearby area.

  • Irazu Crater
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Irazu

    I had the opportunity to descend to the crater lake of Irazu Volcano in March 2010 during the seventh workshop of the Commission of Volcanic Lakes, an international research group. We needed special permission--and climbing equipment--to go there.

  • Lava in Etna, Italy
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Etna

    In 2008, my volcanology class at Rutgers took a field trip to Italy. At Etna, I was able to observe lava flow from just meters away.

  • Stromboli, Italy
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Stromboli

    During our Rutgers volcanology field trip to Italy, we visited Stromboli, another of the country’s volcanoes, where we had the chance to see it in action.

  • Volcano in Vesuvius
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Vesuvius

    Pompeii was destroyed by a catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The volcano is still active and a threat to the city of Naples.

  • Nicaragua
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Concepcion

    The Concepcion Volcano is part of an island in Lake Nicaragua. I visited Nicaragua with a Costa Rican colleague to bring rock samples to Rutgers for a project of his.

  • Volcano in Turrialba
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Turrialba

    In January 2010, Turrialba Volcano made a small phreatic eruption (a type of volcanic eruption involving steam, water, ash, and rock). I had the opportunity to join a team of geologists from the University of Costa Rica to visit and study the new active vent.

  • Volcano in Costa Rica
    Pablo's Volcanic Tour

    Arenal

    Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica’s most active, and one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. We will visit Arenal in January 2011 as part of the Byrne Seminar on Earthquakes and Volcanoes field trip.

  • Volcano in Poas
    1/10
  • Cinchona Earthquake
    2/10
  • Cinchona Earthquake
    3/10
  • Irazu Crater
    4/10
  • Lava in Etna, Italy
    5/10
  • Stromboli, Italy
    6/10
  • Volcano in Vesuvius
    7/10
  • Nicaragua
    8/10
  • Volcano in Turrialba
    9/10
  • Volcano in Costa Rica
    10/10

Danger in the Field

In January 2009, Pablo was back in Costa Rica conducting research for a Rutgers geological study and his thesis. In the early afternoon of January 8, 2009, Pablo and a former classmate, Pedro Acosta, were collecting rock samples and mapping the area around the Poás Volcano, when a 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck.

About a mile from the epicenter, they barely escaped getting buried in falling debris. “Trees began to fall like sticks, and landslides from the surrounding mountains on both sides began to roar. I tried to stand up but couldn’t. It was the longest 15 seconds of my life. If we had been taking measurements where we had stood just a half-hour before, we would have been buried,” Pablo recalls.

Uninjured, Pablo and Pedro found their way to safety by walking for several hours through streams, open fields, and what was left of the main road. All told, landslides from the earthquake killed 26 people.

A Rare Glimpse

Once things calmed down, Pablo returned to the area and, looking closely at the layers of earth exposed by the quake and landslides, realized he would need to reformulate some key calculations for soil erosion that he was using in his thesis.

Pablo was grateful for that flash of insight but most of his data gathering is more routine. “We’re looking to reconstruct the evolution of Poás, which involves measuring the chemical changes in the composition of the lavas and their ages, plus the erosion rates of the volcano,” Pablo says. “Understanding better how a volcano evolves can allow us to have a better idea of what can happen in the future and how a potential volcanic eruption is going to affect people.”

Sharing the Excitement

Attending Rutgers has opened Pablo’s eyes to the options available for volcanologists. He’s still considering whether to stay in academia or take a job in industry after he earns his doctorate.

“I’ve also really come to enjoy teaching undergraduates,” says Pablo, who expects to earn his doctorate in December 2011. “I try to convince students to major in the geological sciences, and to demonstrate how exciting it is to work near volcanoes and search for answers about the earth’s processes.”

Except, he adds, when the ground begins to shake.