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NM scientist on PBS volcano documentary

Dr. Nelia Dunbar while working in Antarctica.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A volcanic eruption takes its time.

Whether it’s weeks, months or years, there’s a way to track it but not to know exactly when it will occur.

In Nova’s “Killer Volcanoes,” which airs at 8 tonight on New Mexico PBS, viewers will get a chance to follow a team of volcano sleuths as they embark on a worldwide hunt for an elusive volcanic mega-eruption that plunged medieval Earth into a deep freeze.

The team investigates the geologic evidence from Greenland all the way to Antarctica to identify the 750-year-old culprit.

One of those featured is Dr. Nelia Dunbar, who is the state geologist and director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. She is based out of New Mexico Tech in Socorro.

“I’ve worked on volcanic record in Antarctica,” Dunbar said. “One of the geological processes is trying to determine if an eruption happens quickly or slowly. In some environments that can be challenging. In ice you drill 3,000 meters deep and ice is really hard to date. So we measure volcanic ash within the ice and that can help determine the chemistry and tie it to an eruption.”

As director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, Dunbar oversees the research and service activities of the state geological survey.

Her scientific background is mainly in the study of volcanic rocks, and she received funding for, and previously directed the electron microprobe laboratory, where she is also an adviser.

Dunbar said working with the Nova team was quite fun.

The producer arrived in Socorro and spent some time filming her working in her lab.

Then she traveled with the crew to the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

“My colleague there looks at the chemistry of ice,” she said. “He’s figured out a clever way to analyze it.”

Dunbar also jumped at the chance to be on the show because she thinks it’s important to get the work scientists do out to the world.

She also worked on the documentary “Sleeping Monsters, Sacred Fires: Volcanoes of New Mexico,” which is a KNME project.

“It’s about volcanoes in New Mexico and we learned quite a lot from doing the film,” she said. “Getting our work out to the world helps everybody learn a little more about what we do.”