Dr. Philip Kyle: Distinguished Researcher 2012

SOCORRO, N.M. May 24, 2012 – Each year, Tech recognizes outstanding two faculty members at commencement with special awards.

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Dr. Philip Kyle (left) receives the Distinguished Researcher Award from V.P. of Research Dr. Van Romero at the 2012 Commencement Ceremony.

Kyle in his natural environment -- in Antarctica.

Kyle poses at Harry's Dream, an ice tower created by gas emissions on the flank of Erebus Volcano in Antarctica.

The 2012 award winners are Dr. Philip Kyle for the Distinguished Researcher Award and Dr. Frank Huang for the Distinguished Teaching Award (see separate article).

Dr. Van Romero, vice president for Research, introduced Kyle, a professor of geochemistry in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, as the recipient of the Distinguished Research Award. .

The recipient of the Distinguished Research Award is chosen by a committee of Tech faculty and researchers from a list of people from the entire Tech campus nominated by their colleagues.

Kyle is a native of New Zealand, where he completed his university degrees. He worked at The Ohio State University for five years and joined the faculty at New Mexico Tech in 1981.

Kyle’s specialty is the study of volcanoes and volcanic rocks. He and his graduate students have studied volcanoes in Chile, Vanuatu, Hawaii, Russia, Italy and the United States.

He is best known for his research in Antarctica, where he created and has virtually taken up residence at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory. For 39 years Dr. Kyle has spent his winter months at the bottom of the Earth, where he now directs research, mentors students, and has celebrated his birthday and numerous Christmas holidays.

He has received over 20 National Science Foundation grants while at New Mexico Tech, authored more than 200 scientific papers, and served as editor of two books.

“I’m very honored and surprised,” Kyle said. “It feels good and makes the time in the field more rewarding . My research in Antarctica has been possible and fun because of the many graduate students and colleagues I have invited to join me.”

When Kyle went on his first research trip to Antarctica in 1969, the continent was largely unexplored.

“We went out and looked at volcanic rocks near McMurdo Station (the main base of operations) and we were the first one to do it,” Kyle said. “There’s something psychologically thrilling about saying, ‘I’m the first one’.”

In recognition of his exploration three topographic features in Antarctica are named after Kyle- Kyle Cone, Kyle Peak and Kyle Hills.

Over the years, Kyle had many research “firsts” in Antarctica. During that first trip in 1969, he looked up in awe at the steaming volcano that is Mount Erebus.

“I got the calling,” he said. “Some people find God. I found Erebus. As a grad student, I was one of the first to go to the top for an extended period of time. That’s when we discovered a rare lake of molten lava in a 600 foot deep crater”

Kyle has been back to Erebus almost every year since then, assessing the mood of the volcano and watching changes in the lava lake and eruptive patterns. Over the years, he has tried on several occasions to visit the lava lake, but he and his colleagues have been turned back almost every time by eruptions.

“It’s always been a long-term dream to get to the lava lake inside the crater,” Kyle said. “We tried in 1974 and realized it was going to be a major undertaking. … We were going to sample gases and lava. One night two of us were inside the crater half way down to the lava lake when ‘Boom’. We had a little eruption which blasted us the ground and filled the air with large lava bombs.”

Another attempt in 1978 was again turned back when the researchers had to dodge flying lava bombs. The next attempt was in 1992, when engineers at Carnegie Mellon sent a robot named Dante over the crater rim and into the crater.

“It took about 20 steps and died,” Kyle said

About that same time, Kyle and colleagues began to realize that Erebus was an important and significant volcano.

“Antarctica is pristine,” he said. “Erebus is an important source of gases to the Antarctic atmosphere, what I call a natural polluter. It’s environmentally important because it’s adding gas to the pristine environment. I thought we really needed to set up regular observations and to monitor the changeable moods of the volcano.”

That was the beginning of the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, now two small huts near the 12,500 foot summit. An earlier hut up closer to the crater rim was abandoned in 1984 when larger and more frequent eruptions nearly hit the hut.

New Mexico Tech scientists and students and international collaborators have maintained an array of seismometers and other instruments at Erebus for 20 years, thanks to continuous funding from the National Science Foundation. A proposal for another five years of funding for the observatory is pending.

“Our questions and our science has been evolving and getting more sophisticated, compared to the early days,” he said. “Erebus is special and unique. The main thing that makes it workable is that it’s accessible.”

Easily accessible for two months, that is.

Erebus is only 20 miles from McMurdo Station, where the Tech team has ample support and helicopter transport.

“Many other volcano observatories are probably jealous of how easy it is for us to get there,” he said.

Erebus poses no major hazard to civilization. The observatory is dedicated to science.

“We go and understand how volcanoes work and that’s the unique part about it,” he said. “To me, the important part of it is being an incredible place to take graduate students. More than 30 have gone with me and many have gone on to do their thesis or dissertation on an aspect of Erebus.”

Over the years, Kyle’s research has centered on volcanic rocks, the origin of the lava and the volcano’s gas emissions.

“I’d arrive at the hut and no one could distract me,” he said. “I’d be out measuring gases to figure out what sort of contribution Erebus was making to the Antarctic atmosphere.”

These days, Kyle does less research. He is mostly a manager, mentor and teacher. Managing the observatory – along with co-principal investigator Dr. Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge University – is a year-round job.

“It’s not like you can just pack up and head down,” he said. “I spend summer planning, organizing and dealing with the support contractors.”

His second love is Kamchatka, the volcanically active region in far eastern Russia, which he’s visited 10 times. He received an NSF grant for his first trip to study in Kamchatka just as the Soviet Union fell apart.

“Over the 10 years it has been fascinating seeing the transition from the broken Soviet era infrastructure to a more modern democratic society,” he said. “Kamchatka was a big, mythical place because Westerners weren’t allowed in. There are always at least two to four volcanoes erupting in Kamchatka. It’s amazing. The Russians didn’t have modern analytical facilities, so we had this pristine, new opportunity to bring our science to other wonderful volcanoes.”

Kyle and students were among the first geochemists to fingerprint volcanic ash erupted over the last 10,000 years from the region’s larger eruptions. Now the chemical compositions of the glass in the ashes help scientists identify them all over the peninsula and in the sea surrounding the peninsula.

Kyle also assisted the Chilean government to measure gas emissions from an erupting volcano in the late 1980s. The gases were fluorine rich and were killing cattle and threated nearby villages.

That was an opportunity for Kyle to work in hazard mitigation and ensure the safety of people living close to the volcano.

Antarctica presents another personal benefit to Kyle; the research team stops in New Zealand on the way home.

“Part of the fascination is that I get a free trip to my birth home – and that’s also summer in New Zealand,” he said. “We often go thaw out on the New Zealand beaches – and there are nice volcanoes to take field trips with students.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech