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Volcanologist Uses Local Mountain Range As Geological Laboratory
Brandon Browne’s research takes him all over the world. His latest focus is Mammoth Mountain which hasn't erupted in about 50,000 years.

December 1, 2005
By Laurie McLaughlin

As they hop-scotched their way across Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula via helicopter en route to explore and study Kizimen volcano — last active in 1928 —Brandon L. Browne’s team landed to refuel near another volcano, Karymsky, which had periodically erupted since 1996 and is located about 80 miles south of Kizimen.

“We desperately needed fuel, so the pilots decided to make a quick stop. Soon after we landed, however, we all heard an explosion. I looked up and saw an eruption of ash and debris from the summit. We all were amazed and petrified at the same time,” says Browne, assistant professor of geological sciences, who joined the faculty this year. The July 2002 explosion he witnessed at Karymsky was the closest he’s ever been to a volcano in the throes of an eruption.

Browne is a volcanologist, and every volcano he experiences, long dormant or not, is of interest to him. Even this one, which he admits — at one-quarter of a mile away — was a little too close for comfort, was a thrill. “It felt similar to the first few seconds of an earthquake,” he says, “where every sensory preceptor in your body is electrified, and you become acutely aware of every little thing around you.”

There are only about 1,000 volcanologists worldwide, and while mountains have been erupting since the beginning of time, says Browne, “volcanology is a very young science. A lot of people study volcanic rocks, but few people actually study volcanoes from the perspective of trying to understand how volcanic eruptions occur. Fortunately, the field of volcanology is one of the most rapidly growing in the geosciences.”

Browne’s research focus is to understand how ash, rock and other debris that erupts from volcanoes are transported and deposited in the surrounding landscape. “With this information, authorities are better able to plan for hazards in the event of an eruption,” he says. His research has taken him around the world to both dormant and active volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, Japan, Russia, Mexico, South America and Alaska, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

One can’t help but notice, however, that Browne is now in Fullerton, and there are no volcanoes in Orange County.

“The closest volcano that I’m working on now is Mammoth Mountain, which hasn’t erupted in about 50,000 years,” he says. Browne already has traveled up to the mountains on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range this semester with a group of CSUF students.

“First, we plan to look at how volcanic eruptions at Mammoth were triggered, and second, we plan to determine the time span between the triggering event — which typically occurs deep in the crust — and the eruption of magma at the surface,” he says. “For most volcanoes, this time span ranges from a few days to many months. Data from our research will allow local authorities in Mammoth Lakes to know how much time they have before an eruption is likely to occur in the future.”

No two volcanoes behave in exactly the same way, adds Browne. “They are like people. Each one is different, and you have to figure out their personalities to know what they’ll do.”

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Stephanie George
Gareloi Volcano on the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, blows some steam during a visit to the site by Brandon Browne, assistant professor of geological sciences at Cal State Fullerton.


Key family photo albumn
Brandon Browne explores volcanic sites at Aniakchak National Park, Alaska.(2/6)


Stephanie George
Volcanologist Brandon Browne hikes his way towards Mount Hood, a volcano located near Portland, Oregon. The Cal State Fullerton faculty member is among only about 1,000 volcanologists worldwide. “Fortunately,” he says, “the field is one of the most rapidly growing in the geosciences.” (3/6)


George Key Ranch Historical Park
Redoubt Volcano, Alaska — one of the volcanic sites that Brandon Browne has visited as part of his study into how debris is transported and deposited in the surrounding landscape. (4/6)


George Key Ranch Historical Park
Aniakchak Volcano on the Alaskan Peninsula. As one of only about 1,000 volcanologists worldwide, Brandon Browne studies volcanoes to understand how eruptions occur. (5/6)


George Key Ranch Historical Park
A view of volcanic slopes in Aniakchak National Park, Alaska. Brown studies volcanos to understand how ash, rock and other debris that erupts from volcanoes are transported and deposited in the surrounding landscape. (6/6)


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