An Introduction to BGS Volcanology / / by Julia Crummy

Dr Julia Crummy has a been volcanologist at the British Geological Survey since 2013. Her research interests range from field mapping of tephra fall deposits from explosive eruptions to volcanic hazard, impact and vulnerability analysis. One of Julia's roles in the team is the communication of volcano-related activities within BGS. Here, she provides an introduction to the varied nature of research in volcanic environments and the research activities being carried out by BGS Volcanology... 

Ascension Island in the South Atlantic

BGS has had a dedicated Volcanology Team since 2008, but we have been doing volcanology research for a lot longer. Prior to the creation of our dedicated team, scientists from research areas across BGS including geology, geophysics, remote sensing, geochemistry and informatics research were carrying out research on volcanic environments. BGS scientists responded to the Soufrière Hills Volcano eruption on the island of Montserrat from 1995-2008 and mapped volcanic areas around the world at different scales to identify various resources. In 2008, BGS set up a dedicated Volcanology Team (of one!) which has since grown to nine staff and we continue to work with researchers from different disciplines across BGS and beyond.

Tar River Estate House, Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat

By nature, volcanic research is multi-disciplinary. For example, in order to understand how a volcano works, what it may do in future and to ensure effective actions to reduce risk, we need to understand:

  • Past behaviour over hundreds to thousands of years through analysis of eruption deposits (e.g. geology, geochemistry, geochronology, petrology, physical volcanology, numerical, experimental and statistical modelling)

  • Recent and current behaviour through monitoring (e.g. geophysics, geochemistry, petrology, remote sensing, visual observations)

  • Future behaviour through short-term and long-term forecasting (e.g. data analysis, physical and statistical modelling, deterministic and probabilistic hazard and risk analyses)

  • How this science can support effective decision-making and actions by individuals, institutions, civil protection agencies, civil society, government departments, NGOs and the private sector etc.

Setting up Raspberry Shake seismographs to monitor activity on Ascension Island

Volcanoes bring many benefits including good water resources, rich soils, beautiful landscapes, tourism, geothermal energy and mineral resources. However, living with volcanoes and sustaining these benefits requires an understanding of potential hazards and the likely impacts of these hazards on society and the environment from local to global scales (e.g. the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 eruption).

Any single volcano can erupt both effusively and explosively. Volcanic eruptions can last for hours, days, weeks, months or years, with variability in the character of activity (effusive and explosive episodes, fluctuations in column heights, etc.) and varying combinations of hazards and impacts. Volcanic hazards include ash clouds (for aviation), tephra (volcanic material) fall, ballistics, pyroclastic density currents (e.g. hot, fast-moving flows of volcanic particles and gas), gas and aerosol emissions, lava flows, volcanic earthquakes, tsunamis, lahars (volcanic mudflows) and acid rain. Some of these hazards occur at the time of the eruption, while others can occur many years to hundreds of years after eruptive activity. For example, lahars can occur for years after an eruption when intense rainfall mobilises loose volcanic debris in voluminous flows, as happened following the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines. 

Sampling tephra deposits from Meru Volcano in Northern Tanzania

Volcanic unrest and eruptions can lead to the displacement of populations, the long-term use of emergency shelters, loss of livelihoods and ultimately to public health emergencies. Our research aims to provide evidence to support both disaster risk reduction and development, so communities worldwide can live with and benefit from volcanoes.

Current BGS volcanology collaborative research and activities include:

  • Understanding volcanism and volcanic hazards in the UK Overseas Territories

  • Understanding volcanic processes through field mapping, deposit characteristic analysis, geochronology, petrological & geochemical analysis, laboratory experiments, and numerical & experimental modelling

  • Volcanic hazard analysis through deterministic and probabilistic modelling of ash fall, gas dispersal, pyroclastic density currents and lahars; probabilistic event trees, statistical emulators, expert elicitation, use of global databases

  • Volcanic risk analysis including hazard, exposure, vulnerability and impact analyses

  • Effective risk communication through story-telling and collaborative film making

  • Citizen science and its contribution to disaster risk reduction, both in the UK and overseas (which we have been doing with both the myVolcano and myHaz apps)

  • Integrating the arts and science to support landscape decision making

  • Global reporting of volcanic activity including providing scientific advice to the UK government on risks to the UK, including the Overseas Territories
We work in partnership with national to local civil protection agencies, government departments, research institutions, civil society, NGOs and the private sector both in the UK and overseas. 

Outreach work as part of the NERC Large Grant, Rift Volcanism: Past, Present and Future

We'll be expanding on our research and work in further blogs but in the meantime, if you'd like to talk about our work, please contact me