A new multi-parameter toolkit to interrogate the source and climate impact of past volcanism

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


Explosive volcanic eruptions spew enormous quantities of ash and gas in to the atmosphere. There are about 5-10 major volcanic events every year, and roughly 600 million people (10 % of the world's population) live close enough to be directly affected when they erupt. These eruptions may cause 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 have an impact on 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 economics billions of pounds. This emergency highlighted the vulnerability of our modern globalised world, 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. Although in most surface environments this fallout is rapidly washed away and lost.

Ice sheets are the expedition to this, and drilling into the ice and accessing core provides the undisputed best records of past volcanic eruptions. Unfortunately, reading this record of past volcanism is not straightforward, and although we can easily identify the sulphur-rich layers and ash deposited by these ancient eruptions, scientists have struggled to understand where the source volcano might be located or 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 we could learn how to get more information about the likely source and environmental impacts out of these ice core records, it would represent a major breakthrough - not only would be able to 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 reduce the 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 hence its climate changing potential. I'll also analyse the chemical composition of the tiny ash samples that get lofted all the way to the ice sheet (many of which are smaller in diameter than a human hair). I shall interrogate these techniques for several well-known volcanic eruptions, where we know both the source and their climate-impact. Once calibrated, I will use the technique to determine the source of unknown eruptions in the ice core record, and evaluate their climate and societal impact by comparing my results to other data sets.

This project will provide critical information on the magnitude, frequency and style of past eruptions. This will lead to improved 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

[1] 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.

[2] International Volcanological Organisations
-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.

[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 might the beneficiaries benefit? And how will I deliver?
[1] National Government (Devolved Government & Government Agencies): By transforming our understanding of 'unknown' eruptions into a detailed database of eruption styles, magnitudes and sources for the past ~800 years I will provide much needed information on the repeat times of large volcanic eruptions that affect the UK. I will transfer this knowledge through Impact accelerator meetings and prepare short briefing papers through interactions with the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, BGS and other stakeholders (e.g. MET office and UK CAA)

[2] International Organisations and Agencies: I will disseminate my new results and methodologies for quantifying global volcanic hazard by interacting with international groups such as GVM and the IAVCEI Commission on Hazards and Risk. I shall support their data gathering by, uploading new eruption information to databases such as LaMEVE (Large Magnitude Explosive Volcanic Eruptions).

[3] Commercial Sector: Collaborations through hazard workshops/forums and the above Impact accelerator meetings will allow me to communicate volcanic hazard information to these groups, and help them mitigate against potential future economic losses.

[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 excellent press team at St Andrews to catch the attention of the media.


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