John Eichelberger: “I hate disaster movies”

John Eichelberger
John Eichelberger
18.03.2014

The Northern (Arctic) Federal University (Arkhangelsk, Russia) is hosting an international workshop on development of the online-course “Natural Hazards”. One of the most interesting participants of this event is professor John Eichelberger from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Actually he gave the idea of the whole workshop. Volcanologist by training, he is no stranger to natural hazards.

— Mr. Eichelberger, please tell about your work in the field of volcanology.

— Well, I’m dean of the graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and also dean of graduate studies at the University of the Arctic. The University of the Arctic is a network of about 150 universities and research institutes. And NArFU is one of the leading partners of UA.

My scientific background is volcanology, and my research interests are connected with Russia . For the first time I visited Russia at a scientific conference in 1988 . Actually, I worked in the research laboratories of the U.S. government in Mexico. In 1991 I became a professor of volcanology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was also one of the founders of the Volcanological Observatory. We covered a number of volcanoes with seismological networks, including the island volcanoes. We started working with Russian colleagues on Kamchatka who have been monitoring volcanoes there. Ash clouds were a big concern; ash clouds caused difficulties for air transportation. The ash from Kamchatka volcanoes came to the atmosphere above the United States. And besides we worked on the joint summer schools between Kamchatka and Alaska. And I married a Russian volcanologist.

Then I went to work for the US government at the headquarters of the US geological survey. So I went straight from Kamchatka to Washington D.C. I managed the United States monitoring volcanoes program. And I helped to establish a committee on natural hazards under the bilateral presidential commission. Then I was invited back to the University of Alaska as a dean. So now I’m even more involved in the education and international exchange. Best job I’ve ever had!

— So what do you think about Russia?

— I really like Russia and Russians. My Russian friends call me a romantic, but I think that Russians and Americans are very much alike, because both countries have huge territories and great ambitions. It is not like Europe or Japan where everybody is like packed together. Probably that’s why sometimes we have disagreements. But we can learn a lot from each other.

— Which countries do you think will be the best possible recipients for the course that you make on the workshop?

— I think Russia and the United States, Scandinavian countries, and Canada, of course. The course is unique because it involves several countries and different disciplines.

— During the presentation you said that the students may support the project in some way. But the students are not high experts; can you give any example of their contribution?

— Well, these are graduate students and they are becoming experts. This is a sort of experiment. I found that I hadn’t really learnt things before I started to teach them. You know, it came to my mind, when I started to explain things to students. Students often become source for ideas. So maybe the best way to teach graduate students is to ask them to teach you. And giving them scientific work is always a good experiment.

— Are there any rules of seismic activities? For example, maybe the earthquakes happen every decade or something like that?

— The Earth crust is broken up into lithosphere plates, and most of volcanoes and earthquakes happen on the boundaries of these plates. For example, west cost of the US, west cost of Canada, west of Alaska, Kamchatka, Japan.

— Which natural hazards may happen on the North? On Alaska, for example?

— Well, we are almost at the 50th anniversary of the huge earthquake with magnitude 9.2 that completely destroyed the city of Anchorage. And many tsunamis destroyed a number of towns on the cost. Similar things happened on Kamchatka: in 1952 a great earthquake destroyed the entire village. We have big volcanic corruptions in Alaska, huge wildfires, big floods. So Alaska is probably the most disaster prone land of the United States.

— And what about California?

— Well, California has a lot of problems. Especially because they have a lot more people than Alaska.

— What kinds of hazards may happen in the Arkhangelsk region?

— I’m really not familiar with issues here, but I don’t think that you should expect earthquakes or volcanoes in here. But probably floods and wildfires may happen.

— Do you have any favorite disaster movie? These movies are often scientifically wrong.

— I hate disaster movies, because natural hazards are spectacular enough without people inventing stuff to make them look even better. Like volcano corruptions in Los Angeles, that’s just ridiculous.

My favorite movie is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” by Stanley Kubrick. It’s black humor movie about the Cold War and also a disaster movie in some part.

Vladimir Tyurin, Vadim Rukysov

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