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Actor Will Smith walks into a volcano with a Boise State scientist to study soundwaves

Bright red and orange lava spews out of a dark gray crater. Gases from the Yasur volcano create a white mist in the background.
Dr. Jeffrey Johnson
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Boise State University
The Yasur volcano in Vanuatu spews liquid chunks of rock from its lava lake not far from Dr. Jeffrey Johnson and actor Will Smith.

A while back, Boise State University volcanologist Dr. Jeffrey Johnson took actor Will Smith and well-known climber Eric Weihenmayer inside an active volcano on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean to learn about the Earth sounds that come out of the crater. The trip was part of a new TV series called Welcome to Earth airing on Disney+.

Yasur Volcano Blast

Johnson took the pair into the Yasur Volcano in Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean because of his work studying the sounds volcanoes make.

He led them to the crater rim of Yasur, which is one of the more active volcanoes in the world, and then 200 meters INSIDE. Not far away, “there's a sloshing lava lake and there's these active vents that are exploding from time to time,” said Johnson.

Three men stand facing the camera. Behind them, the rim of the Yasur crater is visible. White gases from the lava lake in the crater rise behind the men. Dr. Jeffrey Johnson is in the middle of the foreground with well-known climber Erik Weihenmayer.
Dr. Jeffrey Johnson
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Dr. Jeffrey Johnson (middle) and Erik Weihenmayer (left) stand at the rim of the crater of the Yasur volcano.

“I had the chance to meet two incredible personalities Will Smith, the actor, as well as Eric Weihenmayer, who is the blind climber, perhaps most famous for having summited Mount Everest, as well as the seven summits. And Eric is a remarkable outdoors person. He's able to navigate around the volcano and he is a competent mountaineer, but he's also just a great all-around guy. Very excited to be at this volcano and the field work with him was an incredible experience for me to meet someone who's so inspirational,” said Johnson.

Johnson says he had the privilege to travel to Yasur before the film crew showed up, to do some research on volcano sound.

“The idea was that I would collect some teaser data and be able to show it off on screen. I came equipped with my normal equipment, which is specialized microphones and cameras and collected data that I more or less expected I would collect. But in addition, I was able to collect with cameras some very, I would say, exciting and novel observations of sound waves propagating through the volcanic plume. And these sound waves could effectively be recorded by our cameras,” said the BSU Geophysics Professor.

Studying the sound of volcanoes helps scientists better understand how they work.

“The question that I get most often is can we use your volcano science to predict a volcanic eruption in the future? And scientists like to be a little cagey about that. We don't use the word predict so much as forecast and forecasts, much like weather means we can give a probabilistic assessment of whether a volcano is likely to erupt. And so that is perhaps the holy grail of what volcano scientists would like to see there, how their research could be applied and we can forecast volcanic eruptions. We're getting better at it all the time,” said Johnson.

He says working on the Will Smith series gave him a chance to both do some very important research and reach a wider audience.

“Scientists generally do their work by publishing and presenting at conferences, and we are very excited to share our work with our colleagues. But sometimes these communities are smaller than we want them to be. I just recently presented my work on this volcano at the American Geophysical Union conference, and there was somewhere between 50 and 100 people in the audience, all of them very interested in volcano infrasound, of course. But that size of an audience is not as large as we think is necessary. I guess we need to increase our audience size and demonstrate that what we do is important. So taking part in a documentary such as this that reaches tens of millions of people, such that the word volcano infrasound might become a household term, that was just really exciting for me."

Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.