Under the volcano

Under the volcano

"There were bubbling, 900-degree molten rocks coming out every two minutes. It was quite exciting."

— Keiko Hattori


Keiko Hattori used to hover in a helicopter on the edge of erupting volcanoes to study the composition of magma spewing from their depths. Then she switched to exploring mineral deposits left behind by extinct volcanoes in Northern Canada, thinking it would be safer.

Until she encountered her first bear.

Hattori, a geochemist at the University of Ottawa, has had more than her share of close calls in three decades of investigating volcanic eruptions and mineral and metal deposits. She began her career as the first female undergraduate student in geology at the University of Tokyo. Her first field trip took her to the rim of a crater created by an active volcano in northern Japan.

“There were bubbling, 900-degree molten rocks coming out every two minutes,” she remembers. “It was quite exciting, and I had questions like, “Where is this coming from?”

That was it — Hattori was hooked on geochemistry. Since the University of Tokyo was an extremely male-dominated university in the late 1970s, Hattori explored research and teaching opportunities in North America after completing her PhD, which eventually led her to the University of Ottawa in 1983.

For the next few decades, Hattori travelled to the western Himalayas in Pakistan, to the French and Italian Alps, to the Philippines. She loved the expeditions and the opportunity to hike and climb in beautiful locations.

Hattori explored the reasons why some volcanoes are explosive, while others are quiet; and why some discharge large amounts of sulphur, while others expel carbon dioxide, mercury or cadmium. She also investigated why some fields of former molten rock contain metals, including gold and copper.

To understand why volcanoes produce different minerals, metals and gases, the intrepid researcher concentrates on geological processes occurring far below the Earth’s surface which feed eruptions. “What interests me is what lies below,” she says.

In 1993, that interest led her to the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction Workshop in Pasto, Colombia. Attending volcanologists learned how to better monitor the nearby Galeras volcano. During an expedition inside the volcano’s crater to collect gas samples, Galeras unexpectedly erupted, killing six scientists.

“That was a bit of a wake-up call for me, that maybe I should focus my research on something else,” says Hattori.

So she shifted her research to extinct volcanoes and the deposits they left in Canada’s North. Nearly three billion years ago, she points out, almost the entire Canadian Shield was covered in active volcanoes. Hattori now studies the processes that gave birth to the metal and mineral deposits residing deep beneath the Canadian landscape.

Her work provides important clues for the exploration of uranium, copper and other metal deposits, as well as for the mitigation of the chemicals and gases disturbed during mining projects. One current project is yielding techniques to help detect uranium buried as deep as 750 metres below the surface.

Hattori’s laboratory in the new Advanced Research Complex (ARC) will provide her with a clean room to help her analyze trace amounts of metals and lead isotopes involved in the uranium decay process. She will also be able to use ARC’s accelerator mass spectrometer and to work with plasma and laser equipment to determine the isotope composition and the concentration of elements in the samples she collects in Canada’s North.

Hattori still travels to remote places, in search of new metal deposits. But she no longer worries about flying over live volcanoes in a helicopter that could be blown out of the sky at any moment if the volcano discharges. Now she worries about bears.

Last year, Hattori was working in northern Saskatchewan, where she and a graduate student had been dropped off in the bush to collect geological samples. She was writing notes by their ATV when she looked up at her student, who was collecting water. A huge brown bear — perhaps a grizzly — was standing right behind her.

“I said ‘Mary – we need to get out of here,’” says Hattori. Adrenalin racing, they both jumped on the ATV. The sound of the engine scared off the bear.

“So it doesn't matter where you go,” Hattori concludes with a resigned sigh. Studying volcanoes — active or extinct — can be dangerous. She has, however, learned something from her recent encounter with Canadian wildlife.

“I never turn off the engine of the ATV,” she says with a laugh. 


by Laura Eggertson

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