Rift volcanism: past, present and future

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


Early explorers called it Africa's Great Rift Valley, a narrow strip that runs for thousands of kilometres from Djibouti to Mozambique and is perhaps most famous for the vast herds of the Serengeti, mountain gorillas and dramatic landscapes of high peaks and fertile plains. The mountains and valleys are the signs of a continent slowly tearing apart. Moving apart more slowly than your finger nails grow, the African continent will one day split into two, creating a new ocean. As the Earth's crust stretches and thins - like plasticine when you pull it - rocks melt, and the resulting magma rises to the surface. The resultant eruptions have had a dramatic and varied impact on the landscape: great lakes have filled the holes left by enormous eruptions; eruptions of volcanic glass have created a chain of peaks, and wide fields are filled with scattered cones and lava flows. This volcanic landscape is hazardous - a recent report for the World Bank ranked 49 of Ethiopia's 65 volcanoes in the highest category of hazard uncertainty. The high temperatures associated with magma in the Rift Valley make it a rich source of carbon-neutral geothermal power. Multi-billion dollar investments by development agencies are driving a ten-fold expansion in the geothermal infrastructure in East Africa over the next decade.

However, the majority of scientific research has focussed on volcanoes in other tectonic settings, such as Hawaii and Japan, leaving the volcanoes of the East African Rift largely a mystery. For many of them, we can't even say when the last eruption look place and there is no monitoring equipment to detect the early stages of an upcoming eruption. The eruption of Nabro volcano in 2011 was a timely reminder of the potential threats. Situated on the frontier between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the area is remote and sparsely populated, yet the eruption caused 32 fatalities, displaced >5000 people and disrupted regional aviation. Had this eruption originated from one of other 29 volcanoes with the same perceived hazard, but in densely-populated central Ethiopia, the humanitarian and societal cost would have been considerable.

RiftVolc will focus on the volcanoes of the Main Ethiopian Rift in central Ethiopia. The aim is to understand their past behaviour, look for subtle signs of present-day activity and assess the threat posed to the infrastructure and people on and around them. RiftVolc will involve scientists from many disciplines working together to produce an integrated view of the past, present and future of the volcanoes in this region and compare it to other parts of East Africa and volcanoes elsewhere. Together we will spend several months out in Ethiopia, collecting samples, mapping the geology and deploying geophysical instruments, before returning to the lab to use analyse the data and create computer models of the results. Petrologists and geochemists will look at the lavas and ash to figure out the timing, size and style of past eruptions. Geophysicists will look for tiny earthquakes, changes in gravity, the passage of electrical currents and movements of the Earth's surface to understand the plumbing system feeding the volcanoes today. Finally, experts in hazard assessment will model possible scenarios and create a long-range eruption forecast for Ethiopia. We will work with our colleagues in the University of Addis Ababa and the Geological Survey of Ethiopia to ensure our findings are appropriate communicated to the government, industry and people of Ethiopia and with international groups such as the Global Volcano Model to communicate our results to development agencies such as the UN and the World Bank.

Planned Impact

National Government (Devolved Government & Government Agencies)
- The Institute of Geophysics, Space Science and Astronomy (IGSSA) at Addis Ababa University is the national organisation providing geophysical monitoring data and advice during unrest and eruptions, and the School of Earth Sciences advises on the character of past eruptions. There are no trained volcanologists in Ethiopia so they collectively provide scientific advice to the Ministry of Agriculture's Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector (DRMFSS), the Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Pilots Association during an eruption.
- The Geological Survey of Ethiopia's geoscience data, advice and services contributes to the sustainable development of the agricultural, industrial, infrastructure and other sectors of the Ethiopian economy.
International Organisations and Agencies.
- The 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 creating an information platform on volcanic hazard and risk, and is responsible for the volcano component of the biennial UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
Commercial Sector (Public and Private Geothermal Energy)
- Reykjavik Geothermal Limited develops high enthalpy geothermal resources and will construct Africa's largest (1 GW, $4billion) geothermal power plant in our study area.
- Ethiopian Electrical Power Corporation (EEPCO) currently operates a 7MW geothermal power station in our study area, which they are expanding to 70MW.

We will deliver benefit by:
National Government
- Assist Ethiopian scientific partners to build institutional capacity and a volcano monitoring strategy for observations of, and response to, future unrest and eruptions based on information on past eruptions, the processes driving current unrest, and priorities for potential impacts. Enable IGSSA to establish real-time seismic and geodetic monitoring.
- With in-country partners involved in science advice, monitoring, aviation, national and regional administration, and civil protection, ensure our research responds to the needs of all sectors, and make recommendations for the future.
- Research outputs and methodologies supporting effective decision-making under conditions of uncertainty will assist with policy development to strengthen the resilience of people and assets exposed to volcanic hazards. Deliver to local stakeholders advice and a legacy of tools that are practical for use in a developing, low technology nation to determine optimum mitigation and resilience strategies, supporting Ethiopia's national response to the Hyogo Framework for Action international policy for disaster risk reduction. Enable DRMFSS to incorporate volcanic hazards into the local disaster risk profiling exercise.
International Organisations and Agencies
- Through organisations such as the GVM and IAVCEI commission, disseminate our results, share experience and practice applicable in a developing nation, and consult over the development of methodologies to underpin future global-scale analyses of volcanic risk.
- Transfer knowledge and contribute to policy through interaction with the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat and input to the National Risk Register.
Commercial Sector
- Collaborate with Rekjavik Geothermal and EEPCO to exchange data that inform geothermal exploration and production, and incorporate hazard analyses specific to rift volcanism to mitigate against potential future economic losses resulting from volcanic activity.

Activities detailed in the Pathways to Impact document will improve monitoring for early warning, facilitate science into policy supporting planning to build resilience, contribute to global data sets and volcanic risk modelling, increase the resilience of industry to support economic development, and facilitate better communities.


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Description We have a much better understanding of the frequency of volcanic eruptions, and their magnitude, as a result of this research. We have been able to characterise the differences in these before and after caldera-forming eruptions at some of the main volcanic centres. Various geophysical data are informing our understanding of melt storage in the sub-surface, including how much, where, and how well-connected it is. We are using the chemistry of the previously erupted magma to help with this. We are monitoring and modelling the state of unrest of the volcanic centres using several techniques, especially satellite-based. Significant amounts of it are associated with gas escaping from the sub-surface and hydrothermal activity. The CO2 gas escape along the East African rift does make a measurable contribution to the global budget. The data we have collected are being used in forecasting or specific volcanic hazards, including using probabilistic techniques. We have used a technique called expert elicitation to acquire frequency, magnitude and likelihood of potential future eruptions at Aluto and Corbetti volcanoes.

We ran a 1-day Workshop entitled 'Geohazards in Ethiopia: preparation and response' and 1-day of training for scientists in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on geohazards on consecutive days. With ODA funding, we have expanded the range of hazards from those associated with volcanoes and earthquakes to encompass other natural hazards affecting Ethiopia, especially landslides. The Workshop involved representatives from government as well as Ethiopian Universities and agencies, and began the work of preparing a White Paper. Both days were extremely successful, and everything we put on was very well received.
Exploitation Route Joint interpretation with other techniques, particularly of the sub-surface beneath Aluto volcano, should better identify the nature of the magma chamber there. We are working with our in-country partners through our Project Partners at Addis Ababa University to develop protocols for addressing natural hazards in Ethiopia. Our findings will be incorporated into these. We will be doing follow-up activity to the Workshop and Training, guided by our in-country collaborators. We are collaborating with those undertaking geothermal exploration in our study area, to our mutual benefit. Further studies to investigate magma storage and migration and how this impacts on geothermal potential is planned, and will incorporate our data along with new data to be collected.
Sectors Energy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

URL https://www.riftvolc.geos.ed.ac.uk/
Description We used our research as the basis for a Workshop for stakeholders in Ethiopia on geohazards. This was originally expected to cover volcanoes and earthquakes (as per our original proposal) but additional ODA funding allowed the remit to be widened to include other geohazards. A follow-up day-long meeting to assess progress and plan for a further Workshop was held in January 2019. A White Paper is expected (see elsewhere for further details). This work is on-going.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description ODA compliance
Amount £40,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2019
Description Impact Workshop on Geohazards 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact 1 day Workshop with scientists (from Universities and the Geological Survey of Ethiopia), politicians and policy makers to discuss geohazards, including earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, in Ethiopia, and how to address the issues in-country, including communication and building resilience. A White Paper is expected in due course based on the outcomes. In addition, there was 1 day of training for scientists on volcano science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Media interviews for national news 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact TV attendance at the opening ceremony of our international conference, followed by several media (TV and 2 radio channels) interviews of 3 members of the research team. We are not certain of the actual coverage that was broadcast from this.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019