Sunday, November 9, 2014


researcher working in tree canopy
I read an article a couple of months ago about scientists who work on location rather than in a lab…the ones whose labs are out there, in dangerous places and situations where most of us would never go.

So, in no particular order, here are 9 of these dangerous scientific work locations.

1)  Inside Volcanoes
When you think of geologists your first thought is usually the study of rocks and various landforms, something safe and basically stable. But for the branch of this particular science known as volcanology, things are definitely less stable and a certainly a little hotter. Having been to Mt. St. Helens, Washington, a few years after the explosive eruption and viewing the devastation first hand, I'm very familiar with the story of David Johnston, the 30 year old volcanologist who was on duty at the time and was 1 of the 57 people who died in the eruption. Volcanologists study the intense heat and chaos inside active volcanoes. Recently a team of three researchers descended inside the Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island off the coast of Australia to study lava flows inside. Wearing a heat-resistant suit, one of them descended 1200 feet into the volcano’s crater to capture video footage of the lava’s movement. Normally, scientists use robotic cameras mounted to small helicopters to do this extremely dangerous work.

2) Tornado Country
The movie Twister gave us a good look at what storm chasers do, and those who live in the part of the U.S. referred to as Tornado Alley see the results of their work on the news when the storm conditions are present that produce tornadoes. Collecting data on storms is a tough process. Getting close to a tornado is risky on a good day, and self-proclaimed storm chasers run that risk all the time. Even with such advanced technology as Doppler radar giving us the overall picture of a severe storm, some scientists claim there is some data that can only be gathered at ground level. One of the most noted tornado researchers, Tim Samaras, routinely drove in front of tornadoes to place cameras and pressure sensors to record the velocities of objects swept up by the storm. Unfortunately, in 2013 Samaras, his son and another storm chaser died in an Oklahoma tornado.

3) Biosafety Level 4 Labs
Laboratories that deal with germs and diseases that can be dangerous or fatal to humans are given a biosafety rating from 1 to 4. Facilities that deal with Level 4 are where the really bad stuff happens. One of the most notable is the integrated research facility located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The laboratory is housed in a nondescript three-story office building—an airtight, pressurized environment restricted to only 30 researchers. The germs they work include epidemic diseases like Ebola. The facility has airlocks that separate it from the outside world and anything that leads outside the building, such as light fixtures or electrical outlets, is sealed in epoxy to prevent even a single germ from escaping. Scientists are given a seven-minute showering with virus-killing chemicals before they leave.

4)  Underwater Caves
The ocean is a massive mystery to humanity, covering the majority of the Earth’s surface. Even though it's part of our planet, we seem to know more about outer space than we do the depths of our oceans. One of the most interesting areas under the ocean's surface are what are known as blue holes, underwater caves that can reach as deep as 600 feet below sea level. These caves have difficult topography. They vary in size from massive, sprawling caverns to holes barely big enough to admit a human. Diving there can be very dangerous with unpredictable currents. Despite the dangers, scientific rewards are huge with both biological and archaeological finds waiting to be discovered.

5)  Tree Canopies
Forest ecosystems are made up of distinct layers, each with its own climate and variety of plants and animals. It’s a simple task to study the layers nearest the ground, but botanists have lots of questions about what’s happening up above. And that’s where canopy research comes in. Scientists at Humboldt State University climb to the top of trees that can exceed 350 feet in height, anchoring their bodies to the trunk. From that risky perch they can observe the canopy ecosystem…as long as they don't lose their balance. At the top of the trees, researchers have discovered a whole ecosystem of moss, lichens, and even whole new trees and bushes growing from dead stumps.

6)  Amundsen-Scott Station
Originally built by the United States government in 1956, the Amundsen-Scott Station sits squarely on the south pole. With temperatures ranging from minus 13.6 degrees Celsius (minus 56.48 Fahrenheit) on a nice day to minus 82.8 degrees Celsius (minus 181.04 Fahrenheit) when winter is in high gear, it’s one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. Even though blizzards and intense winds are common, astronomers spend months at the station because the six months of total darkness during winter makes Amundsen-Scott a perfect place to observe the night sky. Other researchers study the movements of the Antarctic ice sheet—the station itself moves about 33 feet a year as the ice drifts.

7)  Aquarius Lab
Operated by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration, this deep-sea science station comes with a little twist. The human body is only capable of staying underwater for a short period at a time because decompression sickness (commonly referred to as the bends) can cause incredible damage when gas bubbles form and disrupt tissue. Some scientists have long-term research projects that need to happen in deep water, so they do it at the Aquarius Lab. This facility rests on the sea floor outside of Key Largo, Florida at a depth of 50 feet. Researchers spend up to 10 days underwater at a time, studying the nearby coral reefs.

8)  Inside Hurricanes
Here’s another meteorological condition where some scientists like to get a little too close. The National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration employs a number of flight meteorologists who take airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to gather data on the storm’s strength and direction. They use two planes—one is a Gulfstream G-4 that has the easy job of circling the storm’s funnel, the second is a smaller propeller plane that actually penetrates the fast-moving wind to fly right to the eye of the storm. In addition to using Doppler radar on the plane’s tail, they also release a device that transmits pressure and humidity data.

9)  Outer Space
And finally…there is literally no environment as hostile to the human body as the vacuum of space. Long-term weightlessness has negative effects on muscle tone, bone density and the immune system. Exposure to radiation in low-earth orbit comes at levels 10 times higher than the normal dose on the Earth’s surface. And there’s also the fact that outer space doesn’t have any of that oxygen stuff our bodies need to function. Experimentation in outer space has led to a number of fascinating discoveries in fields as diverse as astronomy and cancer medicine.

And there you have a sampling of dangerous locations some scientists refer to as their lab (minus those white lab coats, of course).

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