The Volcano Queen
“It’s just wonderful, isn’t it?” Rosaly Lopes asks. It’s dusk on the island of Hawaii, and we’re sitting on massive licorice-black mounds of volcanic debris, overlooking the spot where red-hot lava from the Kilauea volcano strikes the Pacific Ocean. Mostly what’s visible in daylight is an enormous plume of steam, but as the bright sun gives way to evening, the magnificent ruby glow of the lava becomes easier to see. It’s an awesome natural display that everyone should witness.
What’s not so wonderful is that just about everyone seems to be here to witness it right now. Hundreds of people are arrayed across a wide arc of rocky hill, behind a line of yellow tape that’s there to keep them from getting too close. They have coolers and blankets. They’re playing music on Bluetooth speakers. There are selfie sticks.
I assume all of this is irksome to Lopes, a scientist from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California—but I’m wrong. The glut of humanity elates her. “This is what we want,” she says, her eyes bright. “For people to be interested in volcanoes and to want to see and understand them better. A volcanic eruption is the most beautiful of nature’s spectacles. I love the fact that there are so many people here.”
Lopes looks a bit like one of the tourists herself, in a gigantic wide-brimmed hat, tan capris, and a colorful rhinestone-studded T-shirt. But she isn’t here for the party. The petite 60-year-old Brazilian is one of the world’s leading experts in volcanoes in outer space (she holds a Guinness World Record for discovering the most volcanoes in the galaxy), and she’s currently leading a research expedition to measure the temperature of lava when it meets with air. Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously for 35 years and has one of the largest lava lakes on Earth, is of particular interest to her because of its architecture. The lava that doesn’t collect in the lake at the top flows underground through long, fat tubes of stone until it breaks to the surface via another vent or pours into the ocean.
There is a practical—albeit incredibly fantastical—objective to this science: If we can understand volcanoes on Earth, we can use the information to understand them on other planets and moons across our galaxy. That knowledge, Lopes and others believe, could advance the quest to colonize space.
“If there’s a volcano like this on another planet and it has
similar origins and is made up of similar materials, we can use that knowledge to help build a civilization or build whatever we need to live there or mine it or whatever else,” says Jani Radebaugh, a professor of geological sciences at Brigham Young University who is co-leading this research trip with Lopes. For example, lava tubes like the ones on Kilauea could provide safe havens for astronauts or colonists. Lopes, whose work has taken her to 63 volcanoes on all seven continents, loves this idea.
“I’m an explorer,” she says. “It’s what makes humans human. I want to push the frontier.”
Space has called to Lopes since her earliest memory: her parents and their friends marveling over Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit Earth. The year was 1961, and her father asked the 4-year-old Lopes, a bit rhetorically, “Would you like to go into space?” “Of course I said yes,” she recalls now. “I had no idea what space was or what Russians were or anything like that. I suppose I could hear the excitement in their voices. That might have started it all.”
That fascination never waned. Eight years later, she and her family were on vacation in Argentina, riding a bus from Patagonia to Buenos Aires, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. As they listened to news reports on the radio, young Rosaly stared up. “It was the most beautiful sky I’d ever seen,” she says. “It was a magical moment. I thought I would be up there someday.”
Alas, she soon discovered she had no chance to become an astronaut. Her eyesight was terrible, her stature was too small, and her native Brazil had no space program. She took the disappointment in stride, though, inspired partly by Frances Northcutt, a mathematician and engineer in the mission and planning analysis room at what is now the Johnson Space Center in Houston who calculated the reentry trajectory for the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. Seeing pictures of Northcutt “changed my understanding of what women could do,” Lopes says. “She looked like a normal, pretty young woman, not the idea that female scientists always have to be tomboys or some kind of witch. She had been a runner-up in a beauty pageant. She was a pretty blonde. Seeing that woman there inspired me so much.”
Lopes’s parents expected her interest in space to dissipate, but she continued to push toward the stars, encouraged by her grandfather, who suggested that someday she name a comet after her family, and by an astronomer who gave lessons at her high school. When she decided to attend the University of London in 1975, which required becoming fluent in English, Lopes recalls that her mother told her, “I don’t know if you’re ever going to get a job in astronomy, but you know English and French and you can type, so you can always get a job as a trilingual secretary.” She laughs. “I was like, OK! If that’s her backup plan, that’s fine.”
At the start, the odds didn’t seem great: Lopes was one of just four women in an astronomy class of 31. Interestingly, she notes that only four of those 31 students would go on to get advanced degrees, and three of those were women. “I was the first female student my advisor ever had in graduate school,” she says.
Lopes began working on her doctorate in late 1978, and a few months later the astronomy world went abuzz when the probe Voyager sent images of Io, the moon of Jupiter, showing volcanoes. “My advisor got a fax from one of his colleagues at [the Jet Propulsion Lab] and said, ‘Ooh, look, Io has active volcanoes,’” Lopes remembers. “It really caused big excitement.” She became fascinated with those galactic eruptions and their geology, but her advisor told her, “You can’t understand volcanoes on other planets unless you understand them on Earth.” He took her on a research expedition that year to Italy’s Mount Etna, where she witnessed “this beautiful eruption. I was hooked.”
On an ensuing trip to Etna, she encountered the dangerous side of that beauty: A volcanic explosion sent lava “bombs” flying, killing nine tourists. “I was with my advisor, and we thought that the eruption had stopped,” she says. “We got close and started hearing this noise, like broken glass, and he said, ‘Oh, this thing’s not dead yet.’ And boom, it exploded. We were maybe 100 yards from it. After the tourists were killed, we had to continue surveying right by that crater, knowing it could explode again. So in my first year I found out the beauty and the terror.”
In 1989, after completing her PhD in planetary science, she landed a position at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Her unusual cross-training in astronomy and volcanism—her thesis compared volcanoes and lava flows on Earth and Mars—soon made her invaluable. Throughout the ’90s, the Galileo probe was transmitting breakthrough near-infrared images of Jupiter and its moons, including Io. Lopes was charged with analyzing those, and she identified 71 volcanoes.
“When we found a few volcanoes on Io, it was like, ‘Wow, this is really exciting,’” she recalls. “Then the mission carried on for years, and every few months Galileo would get very close to Io. I’d get that data and sit down with my computer and go very carefully, picture by picture, actually looking at the visual images to see if there was something that looked like there was a volcano. It was quite painstaking. Some of my colleagues said it was like butterfly collecting.”
The landscape of Io may have become imaginable only recently, but it’s not all that much more otherworldly than Kilauea’s. Typically, Lopes and Radebaugh lead their group on an hours-long trek over the volcanic plain in search of spots where lava is breaking out (and potentially turning the air toxic). This time, though, she’s getting over a bout of food poisoning, so Radebaugh leads the team solo. The expedition proves a success: The team finds a breakout and takes the heat measurements it’s here for. It’s not an easy victory, though. “This was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done,” Radebaugh tells me upon returning, “and I just finished a seven-day backpack trip across the Grand Canyon.” The soles of one researcher’s boots came unglued, melted by the heat from the lava.
Perhaps what’s most notable about this expedition is not the data acquired, which is highly technical and goes into a sea of data from other research trips. Rather, it’s that, with one exception, the scientists on hand are all women.
In American educational circles, there has been much hand-wringing over the paucity of women in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and Lopes does what she can to encourage and mentor promising young women in a way she wishes someone had done for her. At Kilauea, she is joined by Radebaugh, who brought along one of her BYU undergraduate students, Bryn Watkins; Laura Kerber, a JPL colleague; and Anezina Solomonidou, a JPL post-doctoral fellow. All are longtime Lopes fans who find her life inspiring.
“I read Rosaly’s papers and books, and the fact that she’s a woman, of course, it means a lot to me,” says Solomonidou, a native of Greece. “You see yourself through somebody else, and that helps to know that that’s possible.” Or, as Kerber put it: “Everybody wants to work with Rosaly. She goes around to the coolest places on Earth and sees these amazing craters. It combines all the things I like: adventure, traveling, volcanoes, and space.”
The sole man on the trip, University of Wyoming geology and geophysics professor Bob Howell, has known Lopes for decades; during graduate school at the University of Arizona, he shared a rental home with her former husband, an astronomer. (Lopes has an adult son, who is an engineer for a defense contractor.) Howell, who refers to himself as the “token male” on the trip, credits Lopes with encouraging young women to enter the field.
“The number of women in these fields is still smaller than the men, but it has at least been increasing over time, and Rosaly has been a part of that,” Howell says. “The graduate students in geology—it’s not up to the 50 percent level of females, but it’s getting close. The other field I’m in, astronomy, is pretty heavily male-dominated, but if you look at the percentage of grad students who are women, it’s now close to 50 percent. There’s still a drop-off in terms of the number who stay in the field, but that’s changing too, slowly.”
According to Kerber, one of the ways Lopes sets an example is simply by being herself, by embracing her femininity—much like her long-ago NASA predecessor, Frances Northcutt. At JPL, Kerber notes, “Rosaly wears perfectly tailored dresses and always looks perfectly dressed all the time. Then there’s this other side of her where she’s this big volcano explorer. The fact that she can wear those different hats is very inspirational. She just does whatever she wants. She’s not thinking, ‘I have to dress like a hard-core field person so people will know I’m a hard-core field person.’”
Lopes finds all of this gratifying, but she’s not done breaking barriers yet. Perhaps, as going into orbit becomes more common, she could become the oldest woman to reach space?
“Oh, absolutely,” she says, still betraying the giddiness of a 4-year-old first hearing about space or a 12-year-old finding out that a man has walked on the moon. “I’m waiting for the price to come down—or for someone to pay my way!”