GeoTalk: Meet Alessandro Musu, magma researcher & science communicator!

GeoTalk: Meet Alessandro Musu, magma researcher & science communicator!

Hello Alessandro, thanks for joining us today! Before we delve deeper, could you tell us a little about yourself and your research?

Hi, thank you for having me today, I am Alessandro Musu, a PhD student in Petrology and Volcanology at the University of Geneva. I have currently just started my third year. The main goal of my research is understanding the link between deep magmatic processes and eruptive behaviours. One of the big problems in studying deep-related processes is our inability to see what is going on down there.

Fortunately, there are different approaches that can help scientists to better understand the mechanisms acting in a volcanic plumbing system. One of the approaches we can take, and currently the one I am working on, is the study of the mineral zoning. Minerals, indeed, can record physico-chemical variations in the magma chamber telling us more about what they went through before they were erupted. Currently I am growing experimental crystals from natural melts in high-T furnaces, under well-known conditions, to better discriminate the processes responsible for different zoning patterns. This may help us in the future to better understand data from natural crystals.

I have always been very passionate about geology. I’m originally from Colli Albani, a volcanic area just south of Rome, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why I’ve always been so fascinated by volcanology. The theses I did for my Bachelor and for my master’s degrees were both on volcanology, and I’m very happy with the path I took.

I also have other passions: before my PhD I had a one-year fellowship for an outreach project at the University of Perugia, which brought me closer to this other world: the science communication, which I believe is more than fundamental.

The behaviour of volcanic eruptions appear to be influenced by processes occurring deep below the Earth’s surface. For example, when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted recently in Tonga, the presence of water and gasses near the Earth’s mantle were reported as a contributing factor to its catastrophic eruption. How important are such geo-chemical processes in determining the personality of an eruption?

Alessandro Musu samples eruption debris with a colleague at Mount Etna, Italy.

As we all know, explosive eruptions can have a devastating impact on populations living in close contact with volcanoes, not only because of the direct activity of the volcano, but also because of the side phenomenon that an eruption can trigger under certain circumstances, such as tsunamis. Explosive eruptions can also have an impact far beyond the local one, which we can define as global. For example, the potential impact that large eruptions have on air traffic but also on air quality and global warming. Of course, effusive eruptions might also be very hazardous, but the impact is commonly limited on the surrounding areas. Understanding the eruptive style allows to define the type of hazard associated with it.

The processes that magma goes through before being erupted are crucial in determining how it erupts. The magma composition and its pre-eruptive temperature are relevant, but also the crystal and volatile content, the conduit size and shape, and other processes, such as magma mixing within the reservoirs, should be taken into account.

As mentioned earlier, it is not easy to monitor what happens deep before an eruption. In this regard, for example, the study of crystals can really help us, but it is obvious that this is an issue that requires different and multidisciplinary approaches to be disentangled. It is of fundamental importance to better understand what determines a variation in eruptive behaviour. In the last decades there have been many steps forward made by research in this sense, but there is still much to understand. A better understanding of deep magmatic processes can lead scientists to the realization of better and better eruption models, risk maps, and of course a greater understanding of the various signals that a volcano can give us before and during the eruptive activity.

Your writing has also communicated volcanism through a more positive lens, such as detailing how volcanic ash is an essential ingredient in wines enjoyed globally. Do you think discussion points which bring in different perspectives on what is commonly presented as a destructive force, such as wine production, are useful for science communication? 

Thank you for the very interesting question.

From my perspective, I think it can be useful to analyse the reality that surrounds us from different points of view. Obviously not with the aim to downgrade some aspects over others, but with the aim to add a piece to the puzzle, which can help us to better understand a phenomenon, such as better understand the relationship between humanity and volcanoes over the centuries. I think this is more what Simona Gabrielli and I wanted to communicate in our posts about volcanoes and wine.

For example, many volcanic soils are particularly productive and are able to support very dense populations. This can help us better understand why many civilizations have developed and still develop in these areas.

Another aspect that I think is essential in scientific communication is it not only has the role of providing more tools to better understand reality and what happens around us, but also to bring people closer to certain topics. I think volcanology, as well as geology more generally, has a great need for more and more minds to help with research. And I think that trying to fascinate the readers to certain topics from different perspectives helps a lot in this sense.

Finally, I’ve always been fascinated to see how many fields that don’t seem to talk to each other actually influence each other a lot. Volcanoes are studied among the ingredients which gave birth to life on our planet, we also find them in art, in myths, in the study of agriculture, and in wines.

Alongside researching geochemical influences on magma you’ve also contributed to the Geochemistry-Mineralogy-Petrology-Volcanology (GMPV) Division’s outreach efforts through, for example, writing blog posts such as those mentioned above; you’re also one of the co-hosts for the podcast series Volcano Watch. How did you get involved with GMPV Division?

Actually, I got in touch with GMPV Division through social media; I had already submitted my work at EGU congress in 2020 but I hadn’t got in touch with GMPV Division in that occasion. Then I saw on social media that they were looking for new members, so I contacted them. It’s a fantastic experience and I’m very happy to be part of it. Shortly after I have also started another project, Volcano Watch, with my colleague Corin Jorgenson: a podcast that deals with volcanoes, from news to myths. I am happy in my small way to give a tiny contribution to science outreach.

Finally, what’s the future looking like for yourself?

This is perhaps the most difficult question. I’m at the beginning of my journey, I have so much more to learn. I love the PhD experience I am having and I’m very passionate about my field of study, so I hope to continue in this direction maybe with a post-doc, but for now I want to focus on finishing my PhD. The rest I’ll see as I go along. Other than that, I also hope to continue to interact with the world of outreach.

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Simon Clark is the Project Manager at the European Geosciences Union, where he oversee project, community, and organisational development. Simon is also the point of contact for early career scientists (ECS) at the EGU Executive Office. They have a PhD in Ecohydraulics and Environmental Engineering from the University of Liverpool, UK. Beyond research, Simon also has a strong interest in science-communication, -art, and -storytelling. You can find Simon on twitter @kelpiesi.

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