Taking Earth's volcanic pulse: understanding global volcanic hazards by unlocking the ice core isotope archive

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Earth and Environmental Sciences


Explosive volcanic eruptions spew enormous quantities of ash and gas into the atmosphere. There are about 5-10 major volcanic events every year, and roughly 700 million people (10 % of the world's population) live close enough to be directly affected when they erupt. These eruptions may lead to significant human fatalities, and can also have devastating environmental impacts, covering the landscape in ash and acidic fallout, which destroys crops and harms livestock.

Although most of us in the UK will never witness one of these eruptions up close they can still impact our lives. This was demonstrated by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in April and May 2010. Although the eruption was relatively minor and did not kill anyone, it disrupted the travel of millions of people and cost global economies billions of pounds. This emergency highlighted the vulnerability of our global trade and transport networks, and the fact that the UK is at constant threat from disruption by volcanic events.

One of the key goals of volcanology is to study past volcanic events so that we can understand their return periods and environmental impacts, and help prepare society for the next 'big one'. Amazingly, the volcanic products from large explosive eruptions undergo regional and global distribution and can travel thousands of kilometres from their eruption source. However, in most surface environments this fine grained volcanic fallout is rapidly washed away and lost.

Ice sheets are the expedition to this, and by drilling into the ice and extracting ice cores scientists can identify the sulphur-rich layers and ash deposited by these past eruptions. Although ice cores provide the undisputed best archive of past volcanism, interpreting this record is not straightforward. The main difficulties we face are understanding where the source volcano was located and what its climate impact might have been. Even in records that span the last 2500 years, we only know the location of 7 of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions.

If scientists could learn how to extract more information about the likely source and environmental impacts of these eruptions from these records it would represent a major breakthrough. Not only would this help scientists target volcano monitoring in regions of the globe that are prone to large volcanic events, but by understanding the frequency and impacts of these past events we can prepare societies for future eruptions and reduce their economic impacts.

My project will take advantage of recent analytical breakthroughs in ice core research. In particular, recent analyses suggest that volcanic sulphur chemistry encodes critical information about the height the volcanic plume reached in the atmosphere and the proximity of the eruptive source to the ice sheet. This method would therefore provide critical new information about where the volcano was located and its climate impact (since plumes injected higher into the atmosphere tend to cause the greatest global cooling). I will carefully interrogate these techniques for several well-known volcanic eruptions, where we already have good information on their source location, eruption style and climate impacts. Once calibrated, I will use this chemical fingerprinting technique to determine the eruptive style (plume height) and source location of all significant eruptions over the last 2000 years.

Thus, this project will provide critical information about the magnitude, frequency and style of past eruptions which will be used to improve forecasts of future volcanic events. Being better prepared will help limit the loss of life and reduce the economic losses. For the UK, we'll gain a thorough understanding of the eruption frequency of large volcanic events in Iceland. For global society, we'll help pinpoint the source of past eruptions and evaluate the frequency of climate-changing eruptions on Earth.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?
1) International Organisations and Agencies
The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) Commission on Hazards and Risk links academic research to decision-makers, to reduce the impact of volcanic hazards.
The Global Volcano Model (GVM) is an international network who have built an information platform on volcanic hazard and risk. They were responsible for the first comprehensive assessment of global volcanic hazards. This was a joint GVM/IAVCEI contribution to the Global Assessment Report for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (GAR15) prepared for the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).
2) National Government (Devolved Government & Government Agencies)
The UK Cabinet Office provide assessments of the likelihood and impact of different risks that may affect the UK. Volcanic eruptions are on the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies.
The British Geological Survey (BGS) volcanology group are involved in understanding volcanic processes, hazards and risks in the UK and globally. They engage with policy and decision makers, NGOs and the public, communicating strategies to mitigate of volcanic risks.
The MET office predict ash cloud dispersion and advise the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) on potential air closures during an eruption.
3) Commercial Sector
Airlines and the insurance industry (e.g. AXA and Lloyd's) require information on eruption frequency, magnitude and impacts in order to build economic resilience and prepare for the next eruption.
4) The public and the next generation of scientists
Secondary school pupils in the UK whom I can inform and inspire with outreach activities about volcanic eruptions, hazards and climate change.

How will I deliver benefit?
1) International Organisations and Agencies: I will interact with these groups by attending workshops on volcanic hazard (e.g. meetings of the IAVCEI Commission on Hazards and Risk) where I can disseminate my new results and consult on future approaches to quantifying global volcanic risk. These groups have well-established platforms for gathering data on past eruptions and I will support these by uploading new eruption information to databases such as LaMEVE (Large Magnitude Explosive Volcanic Eruptions).
2) National Government (Devolved Government & Government Agencies): My study will provide new information on large volcanic eruptions that affect the UK. I will transfer my knowledge and contribute to policy by hosting a workshop that brings together experts in volcanology and risk communication (i.e. BGS, MET office and academic groups that have significant expertise in this area, e.g. STREVA). We will prepare a short briefing paper for the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
3) Commercial Sector: Collaborations through risk forums and the above workshop and briefing paper will allow me to communicate volcanic hazard information to these groups, and help mitigate against potential future economic losses caused by volcanism.
4) The public and the next generation of scientists: Secondary school students in Scotland will benefit from the GeoBus project, an educational outreach program hosted at University of St Andrews. I will develop a workshop on volcanoes and their impact on climate, environment and society. I will support the team every year of the fellowship and will undertake a one week trip to visit rural communities in Scotland who cannot usually access major science events. This is a cause that is close to my heart. I will also engage with and support these communities by providing public lectures at recently established Science festivals in Dundee and Inverness. I will also publicise the project results through the EGU's Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology division blog (which I run), my personal website and twitter presence. Finally, I'll continue to work with our press team to catch attention of the media.
Title New models to understand the sulphur isotope evolution of magmatic-hydrothermal fluids: insights into ore-forming processes 
Description Sisotopic investigations of magmatic-hydrothermal fluids and the S-bearing minerals they precipitate provide insights into magma chamber processes, the dynamics of hydrothermal systems and mineralization. Although it is well established that S isotopes encode valuable information about the source of a magmatic-hydrothermal fluid, as well as its physical and chemical evolution, it is extremely challenging to unravel which of these competing processes drives the isotopic variability. We developed new thermodynamic models to predict S isotope fractionation for geologically realistic hydrothermal fluids and attempt to disentangle the effects of fluid sources, physico-chemical evolution and S mineral disequilibrium. Our new models show that the ratio of reduced to oxidised S species (H2S:SO42-) varies significantly during fluid evolution, and that S isotope fingerprints are most strongly affected by changing temperature, fO2 and pH. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Our new models allow us to identify S sources, flag disequilibrium processes and validate hypotheses of magmatic fluid evolution. Our models can be readily applied at both active and extinct volcanic systems to understand hydrothermal processes and mineralisation, respectively. 
URL https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016703720304804
Title Sulfur isotope analysis by MC-ICP-MS 
Description Sulfur isotope analysis by MC-IP-MS allows high precision isotopic analysis of small volumes of fluids (1-20 ml) which contain low concentrations of S (10-100 ppb). Although this method was developed initally in Caltech in 2013, we have established the method here in St Andrews (the only lab in the UK) and have been improving the technique and applying it to lots of different problems in the Environmental sciences. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have been apply the techniques to ice cores. Until now it has not been possible to generate high time resolution ice core S isotope data. In the past several litres of water were required. No we can generate an isotopic analysis at a bi-monthly time interval. This has major implications for our understanding of the volcanic record encoded in ice cores because S isotopes tell us about the volcanic source, plume injection height and atmospheric chemical processing. For 90% of the ice core volcanic layers we have no information on these parameters and so the new S isotope method has huge potential to fill in these gaps and drastically improve our understanding of volcanism on Earth. 
URL https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0012821X19303395?via%3Dihub
Description Aerosol evolution during the 2018 Kilauea eruption 
Organisation University of Leeds
Department School of Earth and Environment
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The 2018 Kilauea eruption covered 35 km2 of land in lava flows, caused $800 million wroth of damage and release a noxious cloud of volcanic aerosol that caused health problems on the island. To understand the evolution of the plume and the conversion of gaseous SO2 to the irritant sulfate aerosol we have been analysing the S isotopes of samples collected from the plume by drones. The S isotopes tell us about the temperature of the gases, and give some useful insights into the conversion rates of SO2 to sulfate.
Collaborator Contribution Partners at Leeds and Cambridge provided samples from drone surveys of the plume. These are unique samples that have been made available for isotopic analysis.
Impact Paper in preparation on the aerosol formations and evolution
Start Year 2019
Description Geothermal resources in Ethiopia 
Organisation Reykjavik Geothermal Limited
Country Iceland 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Geothermal power is a valuable source of clean, green and 'free' energy in developing countries like Ethiopia. We have been working in collaboration with an Icelandic Geothermal Company (Reykjavik Geothermal) to map volcanic gas fluxes around major geothermal sites. We have contributed knowledge and helped with the spatial analysis of gas flux. The maps that we have generated have been used to identify strucutres that the company could drill for geothermal resources at the Abaya volcanic complex in Ethiopia. We have also carreied out mapping of lava flows and have modelled lava flow inundation to evaluate future hazards. This information help the Ethiopian power companies as well as government to define the best places to build road and power station infrastructure.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners (Reykjavik Geothermal) have provided us with field data for these geothermal sites. The data include high spatial resolution remote sensing imagery and field measurements of CO2 flux and temperature. The have also shared geophysical data such as seismicity and ground resistivity.
Impact Paper in preparation on the geothermal resources of the Abaya region (this will be critical to defining drilling targets). We are in discussion with Addis Ababa University to arrange a networking event where we will discuss these results with the Geological survey of Ethiopia and Ethiopian electric power company (EEPCO).
Start Year 2020
Description Investigation of the origin and impacts of the 939 Eldgjá eruption (Iceland) 
Organisation Desert Research Institute
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We are analysing ice core samples from the Greenland to understand the eruption style and impacts of a major Icelandic fissure Eruption (Eldgjá) which took place around 939 AD. This event had significant impacts on air quality in Europe and has been linked to the acceleration of Christianity in Iceland. We have been analysing the sulfur isotopes of ice core sulfate for this event. This tells us about the atmospheric chemical processing of the plume and the style of the eruption
Collaborator Contribution Collaborators at DRI have provided ice core samples from Greenland (NGRIP2). Collaborators at Queens Uniersity Belfast have analysed the volcanic ash (tephra) from this event to confirm the source and other volcanic events that were synchronous with Eldgjá.
Impact Paper in preparation. This is multi-disciplinary it involves geochemists, climate scientists, volcanologists and historians.
Start Year 2020
Description Sampling of major volcanic events in the Greenland ice core record 
Organisation University of Copenhagen
Department Niels Bohr Institute
Country Denmark 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We sampled ice from the Centre for Ice and Climate, Copenhagen. This required a proposal which was evaluated by steering committee. As ice is very precious these are only granted to researchers of the highest quality. Sampling was undertaken in September and we were able to acquire ~400 samples from 20 major volcanic events in the last 2000 years. These will now be analysed for S isotopes as part of my UKRI FLF.
Collaborator Contribution Colleagues at University of Copenhagen helped prepare the proposal and helped with access to ice core repository and sampling .This was a huge effort given the difficulties of CV-19 restrictions and has been critical in allowing my UKRI FLF to progress (as these samples are essential to its completion)
Impact ~400 samples of ice core material have been acquired and stored in freezer facilities at St Andrew. Analysis is ongoing.
Start Year 2020
Description The origins of mineralised alkaline rocks and rare earth element resources in the Oslo rift 
Organisation University of Oslo
Department Natural History Museum
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Alkaline rocks are rich in rare earth elements (REE). These elements are critical to modern technology(smartphones, medical equipment and computers) as well as green technology (electric cars and wind turbines). These elements are in short supply and Europe (and the UK) import these raw materials from countries like China. REE resources do exist in Europe and potential resources are often found in ancient rift zones. This project is a collaboration with the University of Oslo and we are using sulfur isotopes to understand the temperature and redox evolution of alkaline magmatic fluids. I have been analysing samples for this project in St Andrews. The results will be used o understand how REE minerals form and whether these deposits in Oslo are of economic potenital.
Collaborator Contribution Detailed sampling has been undertaken by colleagues in Oslo. They have recently provided funding for a PhD student who will spend several months a year working on S isotopes in our lab in St Andrews.
Impact Paper in preparation. Currently hiring a PhD student who will split time between Oslo and St Andrews.
Start Year 2020
Description Early Career researcher grant writing workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I led an ECR grant writing workshops in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (St Andrews). It pulled together 10 current postgraduate students and postdocs. We discussed strategies for funding, how to approach new collaborators and discussed the method for writing successful proposal. It got people really enthused about the process and helped to make it seem like a less daunting career step.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/earth-sciences/research/early-career-researchers/
Description Keynote speaker at Herdman Symposium 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I presented some of the initial results of his UKRI FLF at a major geological outreach event at the University of Liverpool (in Feb 2020). The symposium was attended by 250 participants. It brought together university students, local geological society members, school students and teachers to discuss exciting developments in climate change research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/schoolofenvironmentalsciences/earthoceanandecologicalscien...
Description Workshop in UKRI fellowships with St Andrews University postdocs and staff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I have spoken at multiple University workshops on how to apply for UKRI fellowships and how to write and pitch porpiosals. I normally give a 30 min overview then spend 45 min taking questiosn from the audience. There is usually lots of interst and questions about how to write a succesful proposal nad how to design your project. I get lots of follow up with these from the atendeeds. For examples I have gone on to conduct mock interviews for several St A UKRI/fellowship candidates (in Physics and Chemistry) and provided advice to 5-10 candidates on writing fellowship applications (often speaking to them in person, and providing feedback on their applications).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020