Volcano Alert

At Connecticut College, Iezzi built the foundation for her future as a volcano specialist. Because Conn gives students the option of designing their own majors, Iezzi tailored her geophysics major by combining physics, environmental studies, math and chemistry courses, which she then presented to a committee for review.

“I came to Conn knowing that I wanted to study geophysics,” said Iezzi, who was also a scholar in the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment. “The ability to make your own major was a huge plus, and allowed me to make my education all I wanted it to be.”

Iezzi worked closely with her major adviser Doug Thompson, the Rosemary Park Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics. Thompson, a geomorphologist, also served as Iezzi’s honors thesis adviser.

“Students have done very different kinds of geoscience-related self-designed majors, and we really tailor it to what the students’ particular interest has been,” he said. “In Alex’s case it was volcanology.”

Thompson knew the U.S. Geological Survey offered internship opportunities to students who could provide their own funding. Because Connecticut College guarantees up to $3,000 for a career-related internship, Iezzi was able to spend the summer between her junior and senior years at the Alaska Volcano Observatory (as well as a month at the Cascades Volcano Observatory), where she visited some of the more than 50 active volcanoes in the Aleutian Range. “This internship, coupled with the extraordinary support of my adviser Doug Thompson, allowed me to pursue graduate school in one of the most volcanically active areas of the world. It’s a dream come true.”

Iezzi then turned her experience mapping lahars, the destructive debris flows created during eruptions, at Alaska's Redoubt Volcano into a 160-page honors thesis.

“When a volcano erupts, it melts the glacier and snow on it and creates a lot of water, as well as solid material spewing from the volcano. This combination is how you get these huge mudflows off the volcanoes,” she said. “I would create maps that made predictions about the direction and extent of the lahar based on starting volume, which can aide in mitigation efforts during future eruptions of Redoubt.”

Iezzi’s current graduate work is specific to long-range infrasound. That’s the frequency of sound below human hearing, from 0.1 to 20 hertz, and “where most volcanic acoustic energy is emitted,” she said. “Infrasound can travel for hundreds to thousands of kilometers if the conditions are right, making it a vital monitoring tool for a region as expansive as Alaska.

“Once magma or ash comes out, you’re going to see it as an acoustic wave. That’s when we know the moving magma below the surface creating seismicity has become a real hazard.”

Iezzi was back at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in March 2016 as part of her doctoral program when activity was detected remotely coming from Pavlof Volcano, also in the Aleutian Range.

Monitoring sound waves in an eruption is an emerging field that helps volcano experts compare factors from wind condition and temperature to predict how fast and far the sound will travel through the atmosphere. Doing so can help with public safety response, such as alerting airlines to air hazards.

“Because air travel is huge above Alaska, we try to figure out how much ash is coming out, and how high the plume reaches as soon as possible, so we can warn the aviation industry,” Iezzi said.

Early this year, Iezzi was one of seven co-authors whose detailing of the Pavlof eruption appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of the journal Science. In the article, the scientists considered the relationship between the heights reached by volcanic plumes and the corresponding vibrations to the surrounding ground and air that are simultaneously emitted.

For a young scientist, coauthoring a peer-reviewed journal is significant, Thompson said.

“This is an amazing accomplishment for any scientist, never mind someone who just graduated less than two years ago,” he said, giving credit to Iezzi’s dedication to her field.

“Alex’s perseverance and love of volcanoes has carried her to the nation's top volcano research institutes and active volcanoes around the world,” Thompson said. “Now, she has coauthored an article that has appeared in one of the top science journals in the world. The experiences she gained while at Connecticut College were truly eye-opening.”

March 10, 2017