The Kraffts, reckless volcanologists

The Kraffts, reckless volcanologists
The Kraffts, reckless volcanologists

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On June 3, 1991, thirty years ago, the two French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft were at the base of Mount Unzen, on the Shimabara peninsula, on the island of Kyushu, Japan. For several months, the volcanic group from which the mountain is made had resumed sporadic eruptive activity, prompting the government to evacuate the nearby area at the end of May. To get closer to the mountain and document the volcanic phenomena, together with other scholars and some troupe of journalists, the Kraffts followed a path considered less dangerous but were overwhelmed and killed – along with 41 other people – by an avalanche of rocks, ashes and gas. triggered by an eruption. She was 49, and he was 45.

The analyzes, photographs and spectacular films made by Katia and Maurice Krafft since the 1970s, often a few meters away from the lava flows, are still today considered the source of a substantial part of the things we know about volcanoes. Both were well known in the scientific community for the courage and recklessness with which they closely examined dangerous volcanic phenomena, going against normal safety protocols. Over the course of over twenty years their work also proved to be fundamental for raising the awareness of the leaders and rulers of the communities living on the slopes of the most dangerous active volcanoes in the world.

“Katia and Maurice Krafft were famous for taking incredible pictures of volcanoes. But that meant they had to come dangerously close to their subjects, too close, as it would eventually become clear, “summarized German director Werner Herzog in the 2016 documentary. Inside hell.

Daughter of a worker and teacher from Soultz-Haut-Rhin, a small French town in the Upper Rhine, Katia Conrad studied at the École norma supérieure and then physics and geochemistry at the University of Strasbourg. He then met Maurice, who was studying geology in Strasbourg and with whom he shared a passion for volcanoes. They married on August 18, 1970, choosing the Greek volcanic island of Santorini as their honeymoon destination, and they began to study volcanoes in Iceland, Africa, South America, Italy and many other parts of the world up close.

Initially discredited by a part of the French scientific community for their complete independence and refusal to frame their research in rigorous academic paths, Katia and Maurice Krafft wrote books, lectured in France and abroad, and made photographic and documentary services. for television, to finance their numerous projects. While exploring active volcanoes (175 in their entire career), she was usually the one with the camera and he was the one behind the camera. They soon became famous also in the United States, where they were nicknamed “the devils of volcanoes” or even “the fastest volcanologists in the world”, for their ability to often be the first to arrive at the eruptive sites, making very dangerous decisions.

In view of their growing popularity and the importance of the documents produced and the materials collected, the Kraffts were later welcomed by the international scientific community and began to be permanent attendance in various volcanology congresses, many of which organized by the French society. Knowledge of the World. In collaboration with UNESCO and with the international research company IAVCEI (International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior), made the film Living Under the Threat of Volcanoes, which was broadcast around the world and dubbed into seven languages ​​following the devastating 1985 Nevado del Ruiz eruption in Colombia, in which about 23,000 people died.

It is believed that much of the work done in those years by the Kraffts contributed to raising awareness of volcanic risks in public opinion and in the communities most exposed to those risks, allowing them to introduce adequate evacuation measures to be followed in the event of an alert.

In 1991, in early June, the Kraffts met in Japan with their esteemed colleague, the 33-year-old American volcanologist Harry Glicken, who was teaching at Tokyo Metropolitan University (TMU) after a doctorate at the Earthquake Research Institute of ‘Tokyo Imperial University (Todai). Glicken was in the group involved in research on Mount Unzen, which had resumed volcanic activity in November of the previous year after nearly 200 years of inactivity.

That of 1792 is considered the largest volcanic catastrophe in the history of Japan, with about 15,000 deaths also considering those caused by the tsunami triggered in the Ariake Bay by the landslide caused on the southern flank of the Unzen by the pressure of the rising magma. The city of Shimabara was hit by a huge pyroclastic flow, avalanches of ash, gas and rocks at high temperatures which, as a result of explosive phenomena of volcanism, descend downstream and can reach speeds of 700 kilometers per hour. The partial unpredictability of their trajectory is one of the most dangerous aspects of these flows, which have sufficient strength to overcome morphological barriers and sweep away many of the physical obstacles that lie ahead.

On the day of June 2, 1991, together with Glicken, the Kraffts visited Mount Unzen for a first reconnaissance and to understand which side to approach to document volcanic activity. The next day, together with other scholars and journalists, they followed a path that should have allowed them to bypass the expected pyroclastic flows. Around 3 pm, the wall of a lava dome – structures that form on craters – suddenly collapsed, generating a large flow that descended downstream at about 100 kilometers per hour and with a temperature of hundreds of degrees Celsius. It then separated into two parts, one of which – the hottest and most devastating – hit the volcanologists’ post, killing them instantly.

“I’m never afraid, because I’ve seen so many eruptions in twenty-three years that even if I die tomorrow, it doesn’t matter,” Maurice said just before climbing Mount Unzen with the others. Their bodies were found and identified days after the accident.

It bears the name of the Krafft – the Krafft medal – one of the most prestigious awards of the company IAVCEI, editor of the scientific journal Bulletin of Volcanology. It is awarded every four years to those who have distinguished themselves for “exceptional contributions to volcanology through service to the scientific community or to communities threatened by volcanic activity”.

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