Step Inside the Mind of a Volcanologist

Jess Phoenix talks about her adventures as a 'science evangelist.'

Jess Phoenix in the middle of a block lava flow in California.
Jess Phoenix in the middle of a block lava flow in California.

Jess Phoenix

Jess Phoenix is a geologist and explorer who specializes in volcanoes. Her work has taken her to the Outback in Australia, the Hawaiian islands, remote parts of Africa, jungles and mountains in South America, and throughout the U.S.

Phoenix has been called a science evangelist for her work, spreading excitement about lava fields, glaciers, and her extreme explorations. She's a fellow in the New York-based Explorers Club whose members includes Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. She has given TEDx talks and has interviewed on many programs, including on the Discovery Channel and has started a nonprofit science research organization called Blueprint Earth.

Phoenix details her feats in the new book "Ms. Adventure: My Wild Explorations in Science, Lava, and Life."

Phoenix took time to chat with Treehugger via email about her experiences, her background, and what’s next in the life of a volcanologist.

Treehugger: You started out in college wanting to become an English professor. How did your career path veer so wildly that you ended up a volcanologist?

Jess Phoenix: While I love English and always will, my strongest love is for learning itself. A run-in with a particularly discouraging professor in my school's English department forced me away from that path, and it was by taking a smorgasbord of classes that I happened upon Geology. I wasn't able to switch majors in time to graduate with a Geology major, but it opened my eyes to possibilities I was later able to make into reality in graduate school.

Jess Phoenix at Yellowstone
Phoenix at Yellowstone. Jess Phoenix

A volcanologist sounds like something out of a fiction book or an action movie. What does your work entail?

Volcanology is the study of volcanoes, and volcanology work is varied and constantly changing. Monitoring active volcanoes and volcanic hazards is central to the work of many volcanologists, as is researching past eruptions and volcanoes that are no longer active. We use knowledge of the past to help us understand current and future hazards and risks, since 500 million people around the world live in volcanic hazard zones.

Where are some of the more fascinating places you’ve gone as part of your “boots on the ground” approach to science?

My work has taken me to holy places of people around the world, like sacred mountains, mosques, gravesites, temples, and more. I've hacked through jungles with a machete, found ancient rock art in deserts, and witnessed timeless rituals related to various Earth deities. The intersection of natural geologic processes and human societies fascinates me, since the challenges faced by our ancestors are the same as those we face today. 

Kneeling on the rim of Halema'uma'u crater
Kneeling on the rim of Halema'uma'u crater in Hawaii. Jess Phoenix

You’ve been called a “science evangelist.” How do you get people excited about geology and field science? Why do you think encouraging interest and respect for science is so important?

The first person to call me a science evangelist was my Master's thesis advisor, Dr. Mark Kurz of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. While working together, he saw my insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for sharing knowledge with anyone willing to listen.

Science answers the big questions of why, how, and what about our place in the world, and we are all born as scientists. Even as newborns, we're testing the world and how we fit in it, which means that the scientific method is our shared, innate heritage. We can all choose to enjoy the process of learning, even if we're not all professional scientists.

As part of the highest tier of The Explorers Club, you’ve joined very legendary ranks. How important is exploration to you? 

Exploration is the soul of humanity, the very core of human nature. Formal exploration, like the type now promoted by the Explorers Club, is done in the name of science. A research plan is necessary, the scientific method must be employed, and it's the ways we get to remote places and answer difficult questions that makes for the kind of exploration that will shape the future of humanity, both on Earth and off. Exploration is absolutely essential to our survival as a species and our ability to live in balance with our world.

At the world's largest acid lake in Indonesia
At the world's largest acid lake in Indonesia. Jess Phoenix

How critical is it for you to share your adventures with others, whether it’s with TEDx or on the Discovery Channel?

Letting people know that exploration is alive and well, and has a higher purpose is at the core of why I do what I do. Too often, scientists have been encouraged to keep quiet and just do the work. Communicating the value of scientific exploration to the general public opens doors and changes lives, and representation matters so very much. If I can open doors for others, then my work's value is much greater than it would be otherwise. 

What is Blueprint Earth?

Blueprint Earth is a nonprofit environmental scientific research organization I founded with my spouse Carlos in 2013. We're preserving Earth’s environments through scientific research and education. Our work catalogs unique ecosystems and provides hands-on experience for students. We are safeguarding knowledge of how our planet functions for future generations, and we teach college and university students how to do field research by providing no-cost opportunities.

We're working to create functional blueprints of Earth's major biomes that will allow us to restore damaged environments, mitigate the damage from natural resources extraction, and someday adapt environments for human habitation. We're funded by individual donations and grants.

Jess Phoenix in the Andean valleys
In the Andean valleys. Jess Phoenix

You recently ran for U.S. Congress. Why did politics interest you? What did you hope to accomplish?

I have been engaged in politics since I was very young, since I understood that political power determines what laws and policies become reality. When I decided to run for Congress, my goal was to defeat an incumbent climate change denier who voted in lockstep with President Trump to decimate environmental protections and sound scientific policies in favor of catering to fossil fuel industry interests.

My run raised the profile of science as a political topic, and engaged many people who had never been politically active before. Science is inherently political, because the politicians in power largely determines what research is funded. Science must have a seat at the policy table, and we must make policy based on evidence and data if we're going to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century.

What’s your very favorite thing about volcanoes that never gets old?

Each volcano has its own distinct personality. Every eruption reveals new information about that personality, and no two eruptions are ever the same. Volcanology is a relatively young scientific discipline, so there is constant updating of knowledge. Every volcano I visit teaches me about its hazards, the human relationship with the volcano, and the potential it has to reshape the very planet. Volcanoes both create and destroy, and that power is awe-inspiring no matter how many times I witness it.

View Article Sources
  1. Doocy, Shannon, et al. "The Human Impact of Volcanoes: A Historical Review of Events 1900-2009 and Systematic Literature Review." Plos Currents, 2013, doi:10.1371/currents.dis.841859091a706efebf8a30f4ed7a1901