Dr Chiara Maria Petrone

Lava and eruptions don't hold our volcano expert back from exploring the behaviours of different volcanoes, from Mexico to Italy.

Chiara Maria Petrone

Early aspirations

Dr Petrone first got stuck into volcanology on a family visit to Sicily in her teens. On a guided tour of the very active volcano Etna, she was amazed at the heat and power still in the apparently cold and solid lava as it burnt her shoes.

While she was never obsessed with volcanoes, Dr Petrone says that when she went to university to study geology, specialising in volcanoes seemed an obvious choice. She calls herself a ‘volcano psychologist’, trying to get to the core of what causes the very different behaviours of volcanoes around the world.

Super specimens

Out in the field, Dr Petrone often climbs a volcano and comes back down with a rucksack full of rocks to analyse in the labs at the Museum. Sometimes she finds outstanding specimens, such as a bread-crust bomb, a huge chuck of lava exploded from a volcano, on the slopes of Popocatépetl in Mexico.

Her favourite specimens also include bits of pumice from Krakatoa, in Indonesia, which erupted violently in 1883. The island volcano blew itself apart, with a very loud explosion followed by a large tsunami that wiped out hundreds of coastal towns. The pumice that erupted was so light that it floated on water, some travelling west across the Indian Ocean until it reached Africa, where it was picked up. ‘It gives us an idea of the powerful force of the volcano’ she says.

Bringing the past to life

Dr Petrone uses the minerals in volcanic rocks to understand why certain volcanoes behave the way they do. Volcanoes often go through cycles of activity, and knowing which processes in the magma chamber beneath a volcano will lead to certain types of activity can help understand when it might start getting angry.

By looking at the rocks and minerals from the present day and past activity of the volcano, Dr Petrone has a much better chance of understanding what it might do in the future.