|Thomas holds up a sample of volcanic gas condensate that he pulled from the Sulphur Banks at Kilauea.
Back in his college days, there was one album Don Thomas ’70 would listen to over and over again—Bill Cosby’s classic, 1965 comedy routine, Why is there Air?
At the same time, Thomas was trying to answer that question himself.
He’s a self-described “typical science nerd”—the kind of guy who was “always taking things apart.” At Dickinson, he double-majored in physics and chemistry, which didn’t surprise his parents and friends. But as a student, he hardly expected that his senior research in gas geochemistry—the study of the physical nature of the air—would turn into a career that lets him explore volcanoes in his own backyard.
Thomas continued his research at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, a city on the Big Island of Hawaii that sits on Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world. There, he earned his Ph.D. studying gas emissions from the volcano.
Now, as a volcanic geochemist and director of the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV) at the university, Thomas uses technology to monitor the activity of Mauna Loa and the Big Island’s four other volcanoes, with the goal of improving techniques to forecast volcanic eruptions.
“We employ a range of technologies to monitor the volcanic system,” Thomas says. “It involves sampling the composition of gases coming out of the volcano, monitoring seismic activity and looking at the unique series of changes that would allow us to forecast when the volcano would erupt.”
With a job like this one, Thomas proves he’s not just a geek—he’s a geek with guts. “There are substantial risks involved in working with volcanoes,” he explains. Laughing, he recalls an incident from his “young and foolish days” at the university.
“I was out sampling, and I wasn’t carrying the necessary equipment,” he says. “There was a shift in the wind, and all of a sudden there was sulfuric acid, carbon dioxide and hydrochloric acid everywhere. I coughed my lungs out.”
Still, Thomas can’t imagine any career that he’d like better. “This is so much more exotic than spending my life in a laboratory,” he says. “I’m willing to defend the thesis that I have the best job in the world.”
But his responsibilities don’t end there. Thomas is involved in the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Project, a large-scale effort to drill through the large, dormant volcano Mauna Kea. By collecting samples of the lava that have formed over the volcano’s lifetime, the project team hopes to better understand the processes that govern “Hawaiian-style volcanoes.”
“We’ve already drilled down to 10,950 feet”—that is, more than seven times the height of the Empire State Building—“which is the deepest hole drilled in Hawaii,” Thomas says.
He also is active in the Puna Geothermal Venture, which aims to reduce Hawaii’s reliance on fossil fuels by replacing them with geothermal power from underground magma, or molten rock beneath the earth’s crust.
“Hawaii is dependent on oil and fossil fuels for more than 90 percent of its power supply, and the oil has to be imported,” he explains. “We began working in 1975 with the hope that we’d be able to use a high-temperature underground system to generate geothermal energy, which is a much cleaner technology.
“We have one geothermal plant in our operation now,” he says. “It’s still a small amount of power, but it has the capability to produce 30 to 40 percent of the power for the island of Hawaii—a move in the direction of a more sustainable environment.”
But Thomas’s study of volcanoes isn’t limited to Hawaii.
“Part of what we do at the CSAV is bring in technicians from developing nations and provide them with professional-level training in monitoring active volcanoes,” Thomas says. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years, training scientists from the Philippines, New Guinea, Columbia, Peru, Montserrat and all over the Pacific Basin. The objective is to reduce the loss of life by insisting that scientists and technicians can better forecast when a volcano will erupt.”
The CSAV even has initiated a similar training program for tsunami monitoring.
“It’s not often you get to interact with people who routinely have to make life-and-death decisions,” Thomas says. “I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than that.”
With a job he adores and a home in a Pacific paradise, Thomas seems to be living the American dream. But before you envy him too much, Thomas says with a laugh, be warned—“you have never seen rain as it can rain in Hawaii.
“The average yearly rainfall in Hilo is 160 inches, and some years it can get up to 200 inches,” Thomas says. “It’s marketed as a fairy tale, but Hawaii is the real world. Very few people here have surfing the waves as their primary careers. I’ve never set foot on a surfboard in my life.
“I have met many wonderful people here, though,” he adds. “Hawaii is culturally very complex—there’s a much broader spectrum of cultures here than anywhere else in the United States. I do enjoy living here, and I suspect I’ll never retire from my job.”