Every book idea begins with “what if?” For Love in the Time of Surfing, it was: “what if a woman gets drawn into a dangerous adventure to rescue her miscreant stepbrother?” I knew that the protagonist was some kind of scientific bigshot, and I needed a reason for her to be in Costa Rica, the setting for the story. In a flash, I knew that she had to be a volcanologist studying Arenal, an active volcano located in the center of the country.

I have a background in geology and a fervent love for volcanoes, but I needed details on the kind of study my protagonist was doing. I reached out to my friends from the University of Washington, where I earned my B.S. in geology. These friends connected me to Dr. Diana Roman, Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C. who has studied a type of earthquake on Central American volcanoes. What follows are excerpts from our many conversations.

Amy Waeschle:  Thanks again for helping me! I am super excited to learn from you. Okay, so the book will open with a scene featuring Dr. Cassidy Kincaid, the protagonist, on the mountain. What would her seismic station on the mountain look like? Can you describe the ground, what plants are growing, air temperature, weather, etc. What does the actual seismic data recorder look like, does it have an official name? A slang or alternate name?

Ammo box containing sensitive seismic equipment that will help predict future volcanic eruptions

Seismic station about to be installed

Dr. Roman: It generally consists of a seismic sensor buried in a shallow pit (a couple feet depending on how easy it is to dig and how much time we have), connected to a box on the surface (we often use Action Packer type boxes, though usually you only find generic versions in C. America) that houses a digitizer (basically a mini computer that records the signals coming off the sensor, a car battery or two, some cables and bits to run the electronics, and a small GPS unit that logs time very precisely). There’s also a solar panel or two set up on a mount to recharge the battery.

The ground on the slopes of volcanoes can be a mix of rock, soil, sand, ash depending on the particular site. We generally hunt around for spots where the rocks aren’t too bad so that we can dig a deep-enough hole, and we try to stay clear of high vegetation that would interfere with the ability of the GPS and solar panel to see the sky. At the same time, we try to hide the station as much as possible so that people are less likely to find it (batteries and solar panels have a habit of walking off, even in remote locations). In Costa Rica it would probably be hot and humid and maybe even rainy (we work in all conditions). Technically, the whole setup is a “seismic station” and the part that’s in the ground is a seismometer and the entire kit is very delicate (very sensitive electronics and mechanical parts). It’s not uncommon for it to be working fine in the lab before shipping to a field site and then malfunctioning during the install, so sometimes the phrase “piece of crap” gets used. 🙂

AW: Would Cass hike to the station? Drive a vehicle? If so, what vehicle would she drive? Would she be alone or with a team? A partner? A supervisor? If you can, give me a “day (or hour) in the life of Cassidy Kincaid.

Dr. Roman: The key for us is getting the instruments as close to the volcano as possible, but we also have to be realistic. So it’s generally a combination of driving as far as possible, then some hiking. We try to get at least one station within 1-2km of a road though sometimes this is really difficult, especially if the volcano is erupting.

a jeep driving on a muddy road on the volcano, kitted out with special gear to get around on the rough terrain

field vehicles have to be kitted out with special tires and a winch to get around on volcanoes

The typical Central American field vehicle is a Toyota Hilux, generally belonging to the local monitoring agency and kitted out for dirt roads (lifted, good tires, winch), or sometimes rented. She’d definitely go out with a tech from the local volcano monitoring agency (in Costa Rica, OVSICORI) or university. She’d likely be friends with the other Costa Rican scientists working there – we’re a very small community internationally and know each other from international conferences and collaborations. Everyone would be pitching in as much as possible, and dirty and tired, but still joking around and having fun. Going out in the field can be tough and frustrating but we still consider it one of the most fun aspects of our jobs.

AW: How long would she stay in CR/on the volcano? What’s her social life like while there? Would she stay in a local hotel? Or is there such thing as a research station or government housing up there? Would she work like a dog while in the field (super long days) with little time for fun or simple pleasures? Would each visit put her in contact with the same local scientists/team or would it be different each time? What kind of food/restaurants would she eat at? Or would she cook for herself, etc?

Dr. Roman: She’d probably allot 1-2 days in San Jose at the beginning of the trip to check in with her local colleagues and shop for things like car batteries and materials to build a solar panel mount, then a day or so per station to be installed plus a few extra days to go back and fix problem sites, deal with repairing broken vehicles, etc. Time is always tight and there’s very little down time – evenings would be spent at a hotel in a nearby town or village dealing with broken equipment, additional shopping for small parts and materials, etc. The team would probably come back from the field at or after dark, grab a beer at the hotel and a quick shower, then out for a casual/quick dinner at a simple restaurant and back to the hotel to work (usually accompanied by additional beers) in a common area of the hotel. We tend to aim for cheap-but-comfortable accommodations, although I’ve occasionally had to troop through the lobby of some fancy hotel in my dirty field clothes while carrying a bunch of power tools – makes for amused reactions from the other guests.

Costa Rica volcano Arenal, located in the central region of the country, erupting a plume of red lava into the air at night

Arenal volcano, in Costa Rica, during a recent eruption

AW: Cassidy will have a romantic encounter in the story’s opening. Would one of the network seismologist would be a good fit?Can you tell me about what this person does and how they support the research? Typical age and lifestyle background would be a plus.

A network seismologist is someone who does not conduct their own research so much as support instrument deployments, including experiment planning and data processing. We sometimes also refer to them as field techs or just techs. In other words, their job is to make sure the instruments make it into the ground and work while they’re deployed, and that the data collected is good quality (as opposed to analyzing the data and interpreting the results in a scientific context). They tend to be very keen on fieldwork, very good with electronics (often have engineering backgrounds), great at problem-solving on the fly and in less-than-optimal conditions, and maybe a little more laid-back than academic scientists. We (academic scientists) tend to love and appreciate them immensely (in a platonic sense), so a romantic relationship wouldn’t be much of a stretch. I know techs in their 20s and techs in their 60s, so there isn’t really a typical age.

AW: Is my idea of her spending a week in CR for vacation/R&R after her field work is done reasonable?

Dr. Roman: Maybe not a full week, but YES on the post-fieldwork R&R. At minimum, she might treat herself to a night at a local resort hotel (there are several of these around Arenal that have hot springs pools and views of the volcano), including a good dinner and maybe a massage (carrying batteries and digging holes is hell on back muscles!). See http://hotelarenalspring.com/ for an example – highly recommended.

AW: What would be her project’s objective? Would she be able to predict the timing of an eruption, or the size? Where does her research fit into the bigger picture or network of other scientists studying there?

Data chart of harmonic tremor data, which is used to help understand volcanic eruptions

Dr. Diana Roman’s harmonic tremor data showing patterns that help predict the size of the next eruption

Dr. Roman: She could be looking at how a certain type of seismic signal (i.e., a ‘long period’seismic event, or harmonic tremor) relates to changes in the behavior of the volcano, i.e. is it seen before each explosion, and do the characteristics of the event (e.g, amplitude, waveform frequency) correlate with the size/energy of the explosions – this would require fewer (4-6?) seismometers and be a smaller project that someone could probably handle solo. She might also tie the data from her deployment into a longer-term record of observations made by the local observatory, using a combination of her data and data collected by permanent seismometers installed on the volcano for monitoring purposes.

AW: Are there any activities or habits that you would do while in the field in CR, or interesting tidbits about the area/Costa Rica that you can share with me?

One thing we are always stressed about is the instruments malfunctioning once we leave them – usually it’s weeks to months before someone returns to check on them and download data, and the worst thing is finding that a station has quit working two days into the experiment. The things I remember from Costa Rica are the hot springs, the rum, the colorful birds and the sloths wandering around (!), and the incredibly friendly people. Pura vida and all that.

AW: Thank you for these excellent details! I can’t wait for you to read the final product and see your work come to life.

Dr. DIana Roman

Dr. Diana Roman, Staff Scientist at Carnegie Institution for Science

Dr. Roman: Your welcome! Good luck with the writing!