Cynthia Gardner '77 knows that it’s perilous to forecast the exact moment when a sleeping giant will waken.
As a senior geologist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington. She’s just finished a six-year rotation as scientist-in-charge: responsible for keeping an eye on the for-now-quiet Mount Saint Helens — and dozens of other volcanoes in a 600-mile chain from northern Washington to California.
"We can’t predict volcanic eruptions — we don’t know when or with what force." And yet the observatory, with about fifty people, must do the best it can to read the signs revealed in seismographs, satellite images, thermal cameras, the chemistry of volcanic acids, and field observations.
Gardner helps lead a government research program at the observatory, developed as a response to the 1980 Mount Saint Helens disaster. This work — on how to interpret the brooding rumbles, off-gassing, and subtle swelling of mountains — has provided more tools than her colleagues in the U.S. Geological Survey had thirty-one years ago.
When a once-dormant volcano begins to stir, it’s the job of the scientist-in-charge to make the call about when to call emergency managers. "There are two cultures: scientists who are in shades of gray, and emergency management in black and white — you evacuate people or you don’t evacuate people," she says, "part of my job is to make sure we work together to prevent disasters."
A large share of Gardner’s excitement about the strange Braille that is geology — and her well-honed sense of humility — began as an undergraduate at UVM, tooling across the American West with geology professors Jack Drake, Barry Doolan and Rolfe Stanley.
Trained in geology while the field was being entirely rewritten by the theory of plate tectonics, these professors knew how provisional and messy science really is, Gardner says — and they transmitted that to students.
“Each eruption shows us something we haven’t seen before,” Gardner says. “The biggest mistake is to think that you know what’s going on deep under the earth.”