People Profiles

Nathalie Vigouroux-Caillibot, PhD, Earth Sciences

October 22, 2015

Dr. Nathalie Vigouroux-Caillibot is exploring one of Canada's most dangerous and overlooked topics: volcanoes.

Vigouroux-Caillibot is a faculty member at Douglas College’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and adjunct faculty member at SFU. She completed a doctoral degree in Earth Sciences at SFU in 2011.

Vigouroux-Caillibot researches how volcanoes work in order to develop better ways of interpreting signals and predicting eruptions. The surprising part: she doesn't have to cross any oceans to gather her data. 

“When people think of Canada they don’t think of active volcanoes but it’s only been approximately 300 years since the last eruption took place here, near Terrace, BC. In geological terms, that is less than one second ago. If it happened that recently, it could definitely happen again,” says Vigouroux-Caillibot.

Not only is Canada's last volcanic event more recent than most people realize, but also more catastrophic. According to Nisga’a oral history, the eruption of BC's Tseax volcano killed approximately 2000 people. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, in contrast, resulted in 57 casualties. 

Vigouroux-Caillibot is now working to obtain funding for a research project with her former supervisor, Dr. Glyn Williams-Jones, along with Dr. Kelly Russell, to study the volcanic structure of the Tseax eruption. Their goal is to try to understand the cause of one of Canada’s worst natural disasters.

Uncovering what makes volcanoes tick has been a long-term focus for Vigouroux-Caillibot. In her PhD, she developed a mobile chemical gas analyzer that could allow researchers to gather data about volcanic conditions more reliably and easily — and without melting in the process. 

“As part of my research I went down to the Galapagos to record volcanic activity. I was anxious every time there was an earthquake. I thought it was going to set off the volcano but it never did. Instead, when I modeled the data, I was able to see that the mountain was literally inflating and deflating like a balloon and learned that volcanoes breathe like this normally,” she says.

Vigouroux-Caillibot understands first-hand the importance of being able to predict what volcanoes are going to do and when. During an undergraduate semester she spent on a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean she witnessed their power a little too closely. 

“I was doing routine monitoring with some scientists when the volcano erupted. I was right in front of this big vent that was spewing lava and steam. One of the main researchers was wearing this protective space suit and dipping his scooper into the lava. When he turned around his mask had partially melted on his head. I was like, maybe we should get out of here,” she says.

Vigouroux-Caillibot credits her graduate school training at SFU as a key part of her current practice as both a researcher and instructor,

“The department was very multidisciplinary, so I was able to interact with researchers who had different specialties. In addition, I had a lot of opportunities to develop my teaching skills as a TA and a sessional instructor,” she says.

Author: Jackie Amsden

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