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PBS television features Lawrence L. Malinconico Jr., associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences at Lafayette, in “Volcano’s Deadly Warning,” a documentary in the acclaimed NOVA science series.

The program premiered Nov. 12. Seen in more than 100 countries, NOVA is the most watched science television series in the world and the most watched documentary series on PBS.

Last fall Malinconico traveled to Mt. Etna in Sicily with a crew from the British Broadcasting Company to film the program, which deals with the science of predicting volcanic eruptions. BBC produced the documentary for its flagship science series Horizon. The show premiered in January on BBC Two in the United Kingdom.

Malinconico revisited groundbreaking work that he and a research team conducted on Mt. Etna in the late 1970s, discussed the historical development of the field, and remarked on the current state of technology. He climbed to the summit of Mt. Etna and demonstrated the remote gas sampling approach he helped pioneer in 1977.

“The film set out to show the work that has been done over the last 25 years in attempting to understand volcanic predictions and, in particular, when a volcano will erupt. Part of the film looked at how gas emissions from volcanoes have been able to give scientists insights into when a volcano is pressurizing and when it is likely to erupt,” says David Belton, the program’s producer.

“Larry Malinconico conducted crucial research into this phenomenon in the 1970’s and was one of the first scientists to make a successful prediction of a volcanic eruption. Using the COSPEC [sulfur dioxide correlation spectrometer] he predicted successive eruptions on Mt Etna in the mid-70’s. Larry’s experience and insight into gas was a vital part of the film, and we have used him to provide important information about gas and volcanic eruptions,” Belton says.

While Malinconico provided insight for the BBC crew, he says he also gained insight into current volcano monitoring, which he will share with his Geological Disasters class. He also developed new research contacts at Mt. Etna that will lead to scientific collaborations in the future. The documentary itself will be used in the class as well.

“Prior to 1973, the only way to monitor gases was to climb into the crater or around the flanks of a volcano,” Malinconico says, noting that as recently as 1993, scientists monitoring the Galeras volcano in Columbia were killed by an unexpected eruption. “I was part of a group that developed methodologies to remotely monitor gases called a correlation spectrometer. It uses the path of sunlight shining through the gas plume coming out of the volcano.”

As sunlight passes through the gases, the spectrometer obtains a reading for the concentration of sulphur dioxide. This is then combined with position and wind speed information to calculate the total flux of sulphur dioxide being released from a volcano. The nature of the instrument allows readings to be obtained from a significant distance away from the volcano, allowing measurements to be taken relatively safely, Malinconico notes.

In 1977, Malinconico and his team achieved a significant breakthrough by observing variations in gas emissions before three different eruptions at Mt. Etna. “This confirmed that what we had hoped to use the instrument for was feasible, which was as a short-term indicator or pre-monitoring device for volcanic eruption,” he says.

During his trip to Italy, Malinconico learned about Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, a new technology that allows determination of volcanic gas ratios. Malinconico met up with British volcanologist Michael Burton of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, who specializes in Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. One of the main points he stresses about predicting volcanic eruptions is evaluation of multiple parameters, rather than focusing on one technology or approach. While gas measurements provide an important piece of information, they should be combined with geologic, seismic, and deformational studies to provide a comprehensive picture of a volcano’s state of activity, says Malinconico.

Besides Mt. Etna, Malinconico has studied the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and numerous volcanoes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In addition to volcanology, Malinconico’s research interests and teaching interests include applied geophysical, tectonic, structural, and environmental studies, and computer applications in geology. He has conducted research in Pakistan, Italy, Central America, Hawaii, and the Cascades.

Several students also have participated in Malinconico’s research, including Sarah Gately ’03 of Mount Bethel, Pa., who joined Malinconico and John Wilson, geology laboratory coordinator, in presenting research on geological data revealed by magnetic testing in East-Central Pennsylvania at the national meeting of Geological Society of America Oct. 27-30 in Denver, Colo.

Gately’s research with Malinconico and two other Lafayette students was published earlier this year in Abstracts: 2002 Geological Society of America Northeastern Section Meeting. In a project partially supported by Pennsylvania Geological Survey, she spent 25 to 30 hours each week in the field for over a year, collecting gravity and magnetic data to interpret subsurface structures in the Newark Basin.

’’Working under Dr. Malinconico is very rewarding,’’ says Gately, who also is majoring in art and is undertaking an honors thesis and independent study course this semester. ‘’He is a professor who cares a great deal about students and the value of their education. The research that he has given us the opportunity to do requires you to be self-driven and independent, but at the same time the equipment we have used and the techniques we have learned are not even encountered by some professional geologists.”

Gately spent the past January interim session between semesters taking Geologic Evolution of the Hawaiian Islands, an on-site class led by Malinconico and Dru Germanoski, professor and head of geology. “It was a great experience to be out in the field studying geology in such a beautiful setting,” she says.

EXCEL Scholar Lisa Wasiowich ’00 studied what is known as the Coffman Hill sill, an intrusion of igneous rock dated at 240 million years. Wasiowich continued an effort begun by Meghan Keohane ’98. While her predecessor on the project studied the sill in Bucks County, Pa., with an emphasis on gravity data, Wasiowich helped map the site using magnetic data. Malinconico’s study, entitled “Geophysical Examination of the Coffman Hill Diabase Sill,” used Wasiowich’s field work and data interpretations with the long-term goal of helping geologists better understand the thermal history of the area, which is crucial in determining how the intrusion of igneous rock into sedimentary layers shapes terrain and leads to the accumulation of oil.

Malinconico’s current research projects include geophysical studies on the tectonics and structure of the Newark Basin margins; geophysical modeling of the intrusive rocks in the Newark Basin; correlation of the geology and structure with radon emissions in eastern Pennsylvania; seismic and gravity studies in south-central Pennsylvania; and the development of computer courseware for geophysics and introductory-level geology courses. In addition to two books and more than 70 scientific papers and abstracts, he has published six pieces of software.

Malinconico joined the Lafayette faculty as associate professor in 1989, serving as department head until 1997. He earned his Ph.D., master’s, and bachelor’s degrees from Dartmouth College. He also has studied at the University of Oslo, Norway, and Michigan Technological University. Malinconico has served as a consultant for a variety of clients, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the government of Kuwait, the Illinois Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, and several companies and institutions. He has received 29 grants totaling more than $1.3 million for research, curricular innovation, and facilities improvement. He is a member of the Geological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, the Council for Undergraduate Research, the National Association of Geology Teachers, and Sigma Xi.


A National Leader in Undergraduate Research. Sarah Gately ’03 presentated her collaborative research with Lawrence Malinconico, associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences, at the Geological Society of America’s national meeting.

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