STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It takes some courage to study the eruption of Iceland's volcano. First, you need to be willing to say Eyjafjallajokull, which is the volcano's name, more or less. Next, you need to be willing to drive into an ash cloud to collect samples of what's spewing out of that volcano. Over the weekend, NPR's Joe Palca went along with two scientists who tried to do just that.
JOE PALCA: The drive from Reykjavik to the foot of the erupting volcano takes about two hours. Volcanologists Evgenia Ilyinskaya and Asgerdur Sigurdardottir are geochemists. Both are Icelandic by birth. Evgenia is now at the University of Cambridge in England, and Asgerdur is working at the University of Iceland.
As we get close to the volcano, emergency personnel have blocked off roads to keep the curious and ill-prepared away. We are well-prepared. We stop by the side of the road, and Evgenia opens the back of her gray Isuzu Trooper to check on our gear.
Ms. EVGENIA ILYINSKAYA (Volcanologist, Geochemist): We're just getting ready the gas masks, high visibility vests and all the equipment before we go into the ashy cloud.
PALCA: It's a gorgeous day: a brilliant blue sky with a few wispy clouds. But ahead of us, a giant plume of smoke rises from the volcano. As we get closer, the darker part of the plume hangs like a giant, gray curtain across the road. We enter the plume, and the sky turns dark. The car is enveloped in thick, gray haze.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: I think I will just look for somewhere to, you know, take the car off the road in case somebody comes, because they won't be able to see the car from up there.
PALCA: We all put on gas masks, and Evgenia and Asgerdur head outside to set up a gas analyzer and to collect some dust. I try to go outside, but the strong blowing wind makes it impossible to record any sounds, so I retreat to the car.
So it's wild, because a few seconds ago, it was so dark in here that you couldn't see anything, and now it's lightened up a bit. And now it's dark again. Asgerdur and Evgenia are outside collecting more dust. A few seconds ago, I could see them clearly. Now I can barely see them at all.
The wind dies down for a moment, so I jump out and ask Evgenia how it's going. She's carrying several gallon-size plastic bags filled with the fine dust they've swept up from the road.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: We noticed that while we're standing here even, the ash has become slightly lighter. That's why we wanted to get a second sample. But all of this is less than 24 hours, because I was here 24 hours ago and there was -this area was clear.
PALCA: They open the back of the SUV and put their precious dust samples into a large trash bag, wrapping tape around the bag so nothing gets out. Once she's finished, Evgenia gets back in the driver's seat and starts up the car.
So do you think you're going to go further in, or no?
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: Yes. It will be good for me to set up another sampler further in.
PALCA: We drive deeper into the dark cloud where Evgenia hops out and set up another gas analyzer. Then she turns the car back toward the sunlight. She's looking for a spot where she can see the sun shining through the plume.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: Yes! This is perfect.
PALCA: She's got an instrument that can tell the size of particles in the plume by seeing how much they affect the sunlight shining through them. After wrestling with the device for 15 minutes, she gets back in the car.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: The trouble with this piece of equipment, it's very clever, but it wasn't designed for volcanic plumes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: It's more for just general atmospheric monitoring.
PALCA: The reason for doing all this is that the ash contains important information about what makes a volcano tick. The gases say what kind of material the hot magma has been passing through as it rises from deep in the earth. And the ash can tell things about the nature of the eruption. But the answers will only come when the material gets analyzed back in the lab.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: Ash is - it needs to be analyzed in several different stages, almost. First, you would wash it with water to see what comes off of it.
PALCA: Then you wash it in acids to see what else comes off, and then you look at it under the microscope. Its size and shape tells you about the temperatures and pressures that existed when the ash was created. Evgenia says this kind of data is important for understanding volcanoes in general.
Ms. ILYINSKAYA: Probably immediately, it's more pressing to understand this particular volcano because it is still erupting.
PALCA: And that's something the world has taken a great deal of interest in lately.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Reykjavik.
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