Commencement 2013: Underwater volcano study takes URI oceanography student from seafloor to space

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North Reading, Mass. native to graduate May 18, begin NASA internship

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – May 13, 2013 – Joshua Kelly unexpectedly found himself on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on his very first week as a student at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

“Talk about being thrown into the fire,” said the native of North Reading, Mass. “But it was a blast!”

As Kelly prepares to graduate on May 18 with a master’s degree in geological oceanography, he is looking back nostalgically on that first expedition aboard the E/V Nautilus, a research ship that broadcasts its scientific expeditions live over the Internet 24/7.

“I was on watch when we discovered a sunken World War II airplane, and my Dad was watching on the Internet from home and he recognized the plane,” Kelly said with amazement. “I was on board to discover it, and my dad was there remotely to identify it. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

The purpose of Kelly’s time aboard the ship was to study Foerstner volcano, an underwater volcano off the coast of Italy that erupted in 1891 and produced what he called “floating lava balloons,” lava rocks that floated to the surface and have only been observed five times in human history.

“The characteristics of the magma and the eruption itself were very peculiar,” explained Kelly, who earned his bachelor’s degree in geosciences from URI in 2011. “It was a very shallow water eruption that allowed for conditions that favored the production of extremely low density eruptive products.”

Honored as the Robert D. Ballard Graduate Fellow for his work aboard the Nautilus, Kelly’s aim was to collect samples of these rocks and study them so he could create a model of how and why these lava balloons are formed. Working in collaboration with URI Professor Steven Carey, a volcanologist, Kelly spent his days aboard ship helping to map the volcano, determine what lava samples to collect, and recording any notable geological, biological or archaeological observations made by the remotely-operated vehicles (ROV) exploring the site.

Back at Carey’s lab on the URI Narragansett Bay Campus, Kelly conducted detailed analyses of the rock samples and created a high-resolution geologic map of the volcano.

“We are the first research team to utilize ROVs to directly observe and sample one of these lava balloon-producing volcanoes,” Kelly said. “It’s very difficult to study volcanoes in the submarine environment, but we had the right equipment aboard to be able to do it.”

In addition to his research, Kelly spent time at the Graduate School of Oceanography as an outreach scientist in the URI Office of Marine Programs, where he led educational field trips and classroom programs on a variety of marine and environmental topics for K-12 students.

Just weeks after graduation this month, Kelly will begin an internship with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration studying rafts of pumice rocks floating in the Pacific Ocean.

“There are massive floating islands of pumice drifting across the ocean, and the Navy wants to know their locations and trajectories because they pose a significant threat to their fleet,” Kelly said. “I’m going to keep track of these pumice rafts using satellites.”

He hopes the internship will lead to a permanent job as a research geologist with NASA or another government agency.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my volcanology studies at URI, but I think remote sensing is much more applicable to issues facing society, so I’m going to see if I like it and perhaps pursue that as a career,” he said.

Photo submitted by Joshua Kelly