Volcanology, Nathan Magnall @NathanMagnall: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Nathan Magnall


AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanology, specifically effusive rhyolite and basaltic eruptions

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 1 year as a PhD student

EDUCATION:  I attained a Geology MESci (undergraduate and Master’s) from the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.

WEBSITE:  https://nathanmagnall.wordpress.com/

What’s your job like?

As a PhD student, my main goal is to carry out an original piece of research while working alongside some fantastic researchers. In my case, I work on lava flows, specifically a type of lava called rhyolite. Rhyolite lavas are incredibly rare, and I am working on the first one to be observed moving. This erupted in 2011 from a volcano called Cordon Caulle in Chile. Unlike the basaltic lava flows on Hawaii, rhyolites are very thick [up to 50 meters (m)] and move very slowly (~2-5 m/day).


PhD student, Nathan Magnall, on the rim of the vent of the 2011 Cordon Caulle (Chile) eruption with the rhyolite lava flow behind him. At one point a 15 kilometers high ash plume issued from this spot. Photo copyright: Nathan Magnall

We don’t really understand much about how these flows change over time, despite the fact we find similar flows all over North and South America and in Iceland and Italy. I’m hoping to understand how these flows work and also to see how similar these flows are to basaltic flows on Mt. Etna in Italy. The hope is that by understanding how these flows work, we can assess the possible hazards.

It’s a challenging job with definite highs and lows, but I really enjoy the challenge of trying to do something totally new. I use a variety of approaches in my research and try to combine field, satellite and lab techniques.

What’s a typical day like?

I’d say the best part of being a PhD student is that there isn’t a typical day! With my research project, there’s a huge amount variety. I can be spending time in the field on an active volcano, working with a documentary team, or just be back in the office writing, processing data or working in the labs. I also get to help with teaching activities both in the class and in the field.

The variety is what many in the geosciences really enjoy, especially as a PhD student. There’s a lot of flexibility and many students choose to attend conferences and workshops at other institutions to further their knowledge and meet other researchers.


The main volcanic edifice, Puyehue, with the rhyolite flow from Cordon Caulle in the foreground. Photo copyright Nathan Magnall

What’s fun?

Obviously, going into the field is a lot of fun. I get to travel to some really remote areas to get to my main field site in Chile. However, simpler things like getting to chat to a lot of like-minded people about science is really fun. There are a lot of opportunities to exchange ideas, and for the most part, people are really encouraging about your research.

What’s challenging?

Sometimes things don’t work out quite how you expected, whether it’s a piece of equipment not working properly, getting a bizarre result from some analysis or things going pear shaped in the field. All these things can happen, but it’s your job to try to deal with them as best as possible.


Landing on Cordon Caulle after moving up field and filming equipment with the BBC. This presented its own hazard as every time the helicopter landed, it kicked up a large volume of volcanic ash. This can clog aircraft engines. Photo copyright: Nathan Magnall

What’s your advice to students?

Keep on doing stuff you find interesting and enjoyable and don’t forget that sometimes hobbies and interests can be just as important as your academic achievements, especially if you want to work in the field!

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