Ulmer was there, watching from an erosional valley only three miles from Mt. Etna's summit, when the volcano violently erupted and spewed forth ash and lava at 1:33 p.m. on June 19. "It was a very exciting moment," says Ulmer, who is now at home nursing an infection he picked up at Mt. Etna, but was in the nearby town of Nicolosi in June with one of his graduate students, Mark Manna, after attending an international meeting on geo-thermal and volcanic energy in Italy. "Within 10 minutes, there was such a dust cloud that everything was obscured. But what went on through the afternoon, it just sounded like continual thunder as the lava was booming its way out of the top of the volcano."
Ulmer and Manna are part of a team from Temple, Penn State, and Princeton Universities working on a National Science Foundation-funded research project to develop a sensor that can be used to monitor and predict such volcanic eruptions.
"That's why we were in Italy at this meeting," he says. "Mark was presenting a paper on his thesis research."
Following the international meeting, the pair were visiting eight volcanoes in as many days. As luck would have it, while visiting Mt. Etna, they received word of its impending eruption. "The French member of the European and Italian observatory team that is permanently in place at Mt. Etna to monitor its activities came into the restaurant in Nicolosi--the town that is now being threatened by the lava flows--where we were having dinner and said all of their monitors indicated an eruption at 1:30 the next afternoon," recalls Ulmer.
He, Manna, and other volcanologists were directed to position themslves in an erosional valley within a few miles of Mt. Etna's summit.
"The erosional valley was sort of like a 'V' that gave us a window to the summit, yet gave us pretty good protection against how violent it could have become," he says. "They came within three minutes of an exact prediction, because at 1:33 p.m., the mountaintop blew out. And that was the start of what has developed into a major set of eruptions that are still continuing." Ulmer adds that just as exciting was the fact that the eruption was predicted almost to the minute. "For years, the governments of the world, including our own, have tried to predict eruptions with that kind of accuracy," he says. "All of us in volcanology are excited that maybe we have finally found out the right monitoring instruments to put into the mountain so we can make some life-saving predictions about possible eruptions."
That's why the Temple researchers have been working on a new type of sensor that would measure the acidity of the gases coming from a volcano. For example, Ulmer says, many Italian volcanoes abruptly change from releasing a mild carbonic gas to a more deadly hydo-chloric gas before erupting. The change is brought about by seawater flooding into the volcano's chambers. "It may be another predictive tool to watch," he says. "If the gas composition is changing, it usually means the 'plumbing system' of the volcano is open to seawater, which means it is more likely to blow."
According to Ulmer, the Italian and Icelandic governments have expressed an interest in imbedding the Temple-created sensor into some of their volcanoes in the future to see how well it predicts eruptions.
In the meantime, Ulmer watches Mt. Etna erupt again and again on TV while recuperating at home, the casualty of Mt. Etna's volcanic dust that invaded a boot blister he had developed while trying to visit eight volcanoes in eight days.
"When you're climbing around the slopes of these volcanoes, the ash is almost like cooking flour and it pervades almost everything," he says. "I was kind of careless and I got myself a massive staph infection."
What's the Italian word? "Stupido," he adds with a laugh.