COMET honoured by Royal Astronomical Society

COMET’s achievements in Earth observation and modelling have been recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in their latest round of awards.

The 2018 RAS Group Achievement Award in Geophysics acknowledges COMET’s success in using satellite and ground-based observations and geophysical modelling to study earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonics across the globe.

COMET Director Tim Wright said: “We are delighted that our collective achievements have been recognised by the RAS in this way.  It’s particularly rewarding to receive an honour for the full breadth and depth of COMET’s research.”

In granting the award, the RAS highlighted COMET’s contributions to satellite geodesy, particularly Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry (InSAR), which has significantly improved COMET’s ability to respond to tectonic events.  Notably, COMET’s InSAR capabilities allowed rapid and in-depth investigations into the 2016 Amatrice, Italy and Kaikoura, New Zealand earthquakes.

Sentinel-1 interferogram of the ground deformation around Amatrice, Italy due to the 24 August 2016 earthquake.

Professor Wright added: “In both cases, we used InSAR to reveal the surprising complexity of the underlying faults, helping us to interpret the events and improve seismic hazard models.”

The launch of LiCSAR, COMET’s automated processing system, in December 2016 represented a major forward step in managing the vast amounts of data generated by the Sentinel-1 constellation, part of the EU’s Copernicus programme.  LiCSAR is enabling scientists to study specific earthquakes and eruptions as well as longer-term records of tectonic strain and ground deformation around volcanoes – including potential signs of eruption.

The service is already providing high-resolution deformation data for the entire Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt, where most of the planet’s deadly earthquakes occur, and will be expanded to provide global coverage of the tectonic belts over the next few years.

LiCSAR, the COMET-LiCS Sentinel-1 InSAR portal

COMET is also using automated Sentinel-1 data alongside other techniques to monitor deformation at over 900 volcanoes worldwide, including regions with hazardous volcanoes that have no ground-based monitoring in place.  The ultimate goal is to monitor all active land volcanoes, around 1,300 in total.

Elsewhere in COMET, satellite imagery is being combined with topographic data and fieldwork to create a database of active faults in the Tien Shan, a region of high seismic hazard in northern Central Asia.  Working with international partners, this is creating a robust regional model of strain accumulation and release that can be used in hazard management.

Atmospheric studies are also central to COMET’s work.  The satellite-borne Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Instrument (IASI) is being used to monitor volcanic ash and SO2 emissions such as those from Holuhraun (Iceland), whose eruption in 2014-15 was a major source of SO2 emissions.  Holuhraun’s remoteness made it difficult to monitor the volcano from the ground, especially during the harsh Icelandic winter, but using IASI data, COMET was able to provide insights into both the volcano’s behaviour and its environmental impacts.  The same approach has now been extended to other remote volcanoes such as Kamchatka (Russia) and Tungurahua (Ecuador).

Elevated levels of SO2 frequently identified using IASI measurements at volcanoes in Ecuador (a,b) and Kamchatka, Russia (c,d)

These are just a few aspects of COMET’s work, carried out by researchers across the UK as part of national and international collaborations.  At the same time, COMET is supporting a vibrant community of around 80 research students, working on topics ranging from monitoring volcano deformation to modelling earthquake sequences.   There is a strong commitment to developing the next generation of researchers, with COMET providing bespoke training to both members and the wider community on interpreting InSAR and GPS data to better understand geohazards and achieve scientific goals.

Moving forward, COMET remains committed to providing open data on earthquakes, tectonics and volcanoes to support scientists worldwide, and providing greater insight into how the Earth is deforming.

Professor Wright summarised: “This honour from RAS is a great reward for the efforts being made across the COMET family to improve our understanding of earthquakes and volcanoes.  The aim now is to continue to make ground-breaking progress that also benefits the communities and decision makers managing these geohazards as part of daily life.”

Notes

  1. The NERC-funded UK Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) provides national capability in the observation and modelling of tectonic and volcanic hazards. COMET delivers services, facilities, data and long-term research to produce world-leading science that can help the UK and others to prepare for, and respond rapidly to, earthquakes and eruptions.  Further information can be found at http://comet.nerc.ac.uk.
  2. COMET was founded in 2002, rapidly becoming a world-leading centre for the integrated exploitation of Earth Observation and ground-based data with geophysical models for research into geohazards. From 2008 to 2014, COMET formed a theme within the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO). Since 2014, COMET has worked in partnership with the British Geological Survey (BGS).
  3. COMET is currently distributed across nine UK academic institutions: the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford and Reading and University College London. A full membership list can be found at http://comet.nerc.ac.uk/whos-who/.
  4. The Royal Astronomical Society (ras.org.uk) was founded in 1820 to encourage and promote the study of geophysics as well as astronomy and solar-system science. The Group Award recognises outstanding achievement by large consortia in any branch of astronomy or geophysics.  The full citation for COMET’s award can be found via the RAS website.
  5. LiCSAR, the COMET-LiCS Sentinel-1 InSAR portal can be found at http://comet.nerc.ac.uk/COMET-LiCS-portal. LiCSAR is funded by NERC via COMET (COME30001), the Looking inside the Continents from Space large grant (NE/K011006/1), and the Earthquakes without Frontiers project (NE/J01978X/1).