When 48 Hours Correspondent Susan Spencer visited Carl Thornber, a day at the office was a journey up the Kilauea Volcano of Hawaii, exploring what the fierce forces of nature had in store. HeÂ's a scientist with a mission: to study a fire that man cannot put out. At one point, he actually lived with his family on Kilauea just 200 yards from the edge of the main crater. (Now he works at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.)
"If youÂ're actually in the heat shimmer and it blows your way, it will just burn your eyebrows off. Anything exposed tends to get burned. We run into the same risks that firefighters run into," says Thornber.
"WeÂ're on the coastal plane of the south flank of Kilauea Volcano," he explains during a recent interview. "The lava is erupting from the vent. ItÂ's feeding six miles all the way down here to the coast. ... We can see both to our left and off to our right there are two ocean entries, where lava is going into the sea and building new land."
Inspired by a teacher, Thornber found a job with the U.S. Geological Survey at KilaueaÂ's Hawaii Volcano Observatory. KilaueaÂ's east side has been erupting since 1983. So far, it has consumed more than 181 homes along its path, but has provided Thornber with a vast, living laboratory.
"WeÂ're listening to it, weÂ're watching it, weÂ're monitoring it, in every way that we can," says Thornber. "ItÂ's running 24 hours a day. And IÂ'll collect a minuteÂ's worth of images every five minutes."
It's one thing to monitor Kilauea and quite something else again to actually reach down into a live lava tube beneath this desolate surface and bring up a molten sample of this stuff. And that's exactly what Thornber does, by throwing a steel cable with a hammer head into the lava. He calls it "fishing for lava."
After he retrieves a sample, he immediately quenches it in water. "We don't want it to cool and crystallize," he says. "And then I can analyze it and determine its temperature by the glass composition."
That's what scientists call a geo-thermometer.
Seismographs, along with the advanced microanalysis of rocks, help scientists anticipate what Kilauea and other volcanoes around the world might do next. Such information can help save lives.
"Usually, you donÂ't have to wait for the tremor alarms when things are happening, because here you can feel the magma moving up into the system," he explains. "The dishes shake; the chandelier moves. When the ground cracked, it got everybody out of bed! It got my sons out of bed, my wife out of bed ... and we were out there, looking at the glow and saying, ... 'time to go to work!'"
While for Thornber the thrill of volcanoes never ends, the rivers of lava that thunder through the earth at nearly 180,000 gallons a minute can pose a terrible threat, as they did during the big eruption in 1997.
"The red stuf is probably around, at the surface, higher than 1,000 degrees centigrade and probably closer to 1,100," Thornber says. "The air temperature and the lava temperature is over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. And the hottest you can get the broiler in your oven is about 500 or 550."
Does he ever think, "My God, you know, am I crazy to be here?" Says Thornber: "I think the times when you think about that are, say, when you come back next week, and the place that you and I are standing now isn't here anymore."
"I feel like the more I learn, the less I know," he says. "It's molten rock from deep within the earth. It's making it to the surface. And we're seeing just our dynamic planet in action. It's spectacular.
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