Category Archives: Volcanoes

Edna Dualeh: 2024 Willy Aspinall Prize


VMSG has recently announced its 2024 award winners and we are delighted to announce that COMET staff researcher Edna Dualeh has been named as the recipient of the 2024 Willy Aspinall Prize for an outstanding paper on applied volcanology.

Edna’s work on St. Vincent was part of her PhD with COMET Scientist Susanna Ebmeier and COMET Director, Tim Wright both based at the University of Leeds.

You can read Edna’s winning paper here:

Huge congratulations to Edna from all your colleagues at COMET!

Girls into Geoscience Careers Day

A group from the University of Bristol’s volcanology group represented COMET at the recent Girls into Geoscience careers day at the University of Plymouth. The group, consisting of MSc Volcanology students Alex Daniels, Anne-Marie Molina, Hannah Ellis, and PhD Student Ben Ireland, delivered a workshop showcasing a range of volcanological phenomena.

Anne-Marie and Alex had the following to say about the experience:

“We were at Plymouth University representing COMET for an event called “Girls into Geoscience”, where we talked about the different areas of volcanology to try and encourage these girls to pursue a career in geoscience! We wanted to pique their interest by showcasing volcanic rocks, drone imagery, and had a simulation of a volcanic eruption with a Coke and Mentos experiment. 

 We loved seeing the girls get involved with the interactive activities which they may not have access to in a classroom and loved their questions for us. It was really rewarding to see the girls understand volcanic processes through our experiment and get a sense of the intricacies which take place prior to a volcanic eruption in different settings around the world. This was an amazing opportunity to speak to so many girls with different backgrounds that came together with an interest in geoscience. It felt great to be able to inspire some of them with our own stories and hopefully they’ll pursue a career in geoscience!

 We hope to be back representing COMET at this great event next year!”

‘Sensing Volcanoes’ at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

From July 4 – 9 this year, a team from the University of Oxford, University of East Anglia and the University of the West Indies, Seismic Research Centre and Montserrat Volcano Observatory ran a multi-sensory installation as one of nine showcase exhibits at the Royal Society’s summer exhibition. Over six days, thirty volunteers helped to run the installation, manage the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults, and showcase aspects of volcanic and geophysical research.

The exhibit was designed around the ‘Curating Crises’ project [] funded by AHRC and NERC, which is exploring historical unrest at Caribbean volcanoes using data sources from archives – including the National Archives, the Royal Society, the British Geological Survey and the Montserrat Public Library.

The tag line for the exhibit was ‘sense, detect, imagine’. The idea was to explore how people living near a volcano might sense unrest; and how the detection of unrest feeds into the imagining, or interpretation, of what is happening underground, and what might happen next. To create sensory elements of the installation we had objects including an early 1900’s gramophone trumpet, with the sounds of bubbling geysers; an ash-covered cord telephone (from the 1990’s) with recorded eye-witness accounts of activity on Montserrat, and some tactile pots carved from scoria, impregnated with a mysterious ‘volcano scent’ that had been created for the exhibition. The highlight of the exhibit was the imaginarium – a ‘light up’ floor, controlled by a raspberry Pi. We ran this in two modes – one to represent the seismicity and movement of magma beneath La Soufrière, St Vincent during the 2021 eruption; and the second to run an interactive game on uncertainty and unrest, where the floor transformed into a map view of an island, which then turns out be a volcano.

The exhibit was busy for the whole of the exhibition, with over 4000 visitors to the building over the final weekend alone. Those who dropped by included Janice Panton, the Government of Montserrat representative; Turner-prize winning artist Veronica Ryan, and Cecil Browne, a Vincentian author. The exhibit is portable (with a van!) and will have another outing at the Oxford Festival of Science and Ideas in October.

Thank you to all of our volunteers, funders, and to the artists and creatives – Output Arts, Ωmega ingredients and Lizzie Ostrom – who helped to turn a 2-page vision statement into a physical exhibit in a little over six months!

Written by Professor David Pyle, University of Oxford

Bridie Davies (UEA, now Manchester) checking the sound from the gramophone trumpet.
Stacey Edwards (UWI-SRC) and Jenni Barclay (UEA) checking the pendulum array and smelling stones.
The final stages of the uncertainty game. The volcano on the island has erupted, and places where people have chosen to live (represented by toys) have been affected by ash fallout (purple) or pyroclastic flows (orange).

Harmony: Mission Candidate for the Earth Explorer 10

COMET scientists Professor Juliet Biggs (University of Bristol) and Professor Andy Hooper (University of Leeds) both serve on the Harmony Mission Advisory Group and are delighted to have been chosen to develop the concept further.

On February 18-19, ESA’s Programme Board for Earth Observation (PB-EO) decided on the continuation of the three Earth Explorer (EE) mission candidates towards the next phase in the path to their implementation. The three missions, namely, Daedalus, Hydroterra and Harmony, were selected in 2018 for a Phase-0 feasibility study out of 21 submitted proposals. The PB-EO has made now the unprecedented decision of selecting only one mission for Phase A, namely Harmony, instead of more than one as done in previous EE calls.

The Harmony mission is dedicated to the observation and quantification of small-scale motion and deformation fields at the air-sea interface (winds, waves, surface currents), of solid Earth (tectonic strain and height changes at volcanoes), and in the cryosphere (glacier flows and height changes). In order to achieve the different mission goals, the Harmony mission shall deploy two companion satellites following one of ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites. The companions will be flying in two different formations (see Figure 1): the stereo formation, with one Harmony satellite placed in front and one behind Sentinel-1, in both cases at a distance of about 350 km from it; and the cross-track formation, with both Harmony units flying close to each other (~200-500 m) also at 350 km from Sentinel-1. Each Harmony satellite carries as main payload a receive-only synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which shall acquire the reflected signals transmitted by Sentinel-1 towards the Earth. A multi-view thermal infra-red payload is also included to measure cloud height and cloud motion vectors. The angular diversity provided by the Harmonies in combination with Sentinel-1 will allow the retrieval of deformation measurements of the sea and earth surface with unprecedented accuracy (see Figure 2), while the cross-track configuration will allow the accurate measurement of elevation changes for land-ice and volcanic applications.






Figure 1: Representation of the (left) stereo and (right) cross-track flying formations for Harmony. The Sentinel-1 satellite is depicted in black color. Sentinel-1 transmits a signal and acquires the backscattered echoes (represented with magenta arrows), while the Harmony satellites receive part of the energy that bounces towards them (represented with the green arrows). Copyright: Harmony Mission Advisory Group.

Dr. Paco López-Dekker from the Delft University of Technology and principal investigator of the Harmony mission, comments “It is very exciting that our multi static-SAR concept, which combines many ideas that were matured during my years at HR, has made it to this final stage. During Phase-0 we have drafted a beautiful and elegant mission concept promising an unprecedented view at Earth System processes. Now we have the responsibility to look at it from all sides and be sure that it will work. Challenging and fun.”

Professor Juliet Biggs from the University of Bristol and member of Harmony’s Mission Advisory Group at ESA adds “The Harmony mission is remarkable in that it promises new scientific discoveries across an astonishing breadth of topics: from the gradual motion of tectonic plates to small-scale processes on the ocean surface. I’m delighted that we have been selected to develop the concept further and that Harmony is one step closer to becoming a reality”

Dr. Pau Prats, from the German Aerospace Centre, DLR and member of Harmony’s Mission Advisory Group at ESA, is convinced of the benefits a mission like Harmony will bring to the community: “The unique configuration of the Harmony satellites in combination with Sentinel-1 will allow us to literally add a new dimension to SAR observations, a fact that will foster SAR technology and its applications during the next two decades.”

Figure 2: Coloured areas show regions straining at greater than 10 nanostrain per year (the threshold above which 95% of earthquake fatalities occur). Blue regions are those that have a small component of north-south strain and can be imaged by Sentinel-1 alone. Red regions indicate the extra area that will be constrained by Harmony. From Harmony Report for Assessment. 2020.  

So, what’s next? Even though Harmony is currently the only EE-10 mission candidate it does not mean it will be implemented. The industry and science teams have one and a half years of hard work ahead to demonstrate the mission has reached the technological and scientific level of maturity required to enter into the next phase, that will ultimately result in the launch of the Harmony satellites by the end of this decade.

Announcement can be found on ESA website:

Title figure for the Harmony mission. Copyright: ESA.


New understanding of magma movements in volcano roots

An international group of research scientists including COMET researchers Prof. Tim Wright (COMET Director) and Prof. Andy Hooper, and led by Freysteinn Sigmundsson at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, has presented a new method for evaluating when molten magma in volcano roots becomes unstable and forces its way towards the surface of the Earth. In an article published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, the method is used to better understand precursors, onset and evolution of a large-volume eruption in Iceland in  2014-2015.

Just over five years have passed since the end of the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in the Bardarbunga volcanic system; an eruption that produced the largest lava field in Iceland for more than 200 years. The data gathered in the time leading up to the eruption and during it has proven a valuable source for new discoveries in earth sciences in recent years, and now for improved understanding of magma movements in volcano roots.

In the study published in Nature Communications the group of scientists shed light on what conditions need to be in place in a volcano for an eruption to start, and furthermore how eruptions develop and lead to caldera formation, i.e. when a large part of a volcano subsides at the same time as a large amount of magma reaches the surface, as was the case in the 2014-2015 activity.

“Previous methods to understand magma movements in the surface have certain limitations and are based on assumptions that are not always applicable. It is also noteworthy that some large-volume eruptions have small or minor precursors in terms of increased earthquake activity and magma movements.  Small eruptions can on the other hand have large precursors.   This is not what is expected from commonly used models that volcanologists have used to interpret monitoring data from volcanoes,” Freysteinn points out.

The research consisted of developing a new method to take jointly into consideration three important effects that influence how magma accumulates and then forces its way to the surface.

Firstly, magma may be less dense than the host rock surrounding it. Where magma accumulates in volcano roots it can therefore have a large upward directed buoyancy force.  “This means that if sufficient magma accumulates, this force alone can break the surrounding host rock and magma can flow upwards,” explains Freysteinn.

Secondly, the host rock around magma bodies in volcano roots can behave as a ductile material. It can deform and flow in a ”viscoelastic manner” – such that solid rocks yields away from the magma and creates space for new magma without fracturing.  This can happen if magma accumulates over long time, many years or still longer time periods.

“Finally, it must be considered that magma can form pipe-like pathways e.g. by eroding away part of surrounding rocks where magma flows.  Such sustained magma channels do not easily close, even if pressure drops in underlying magma bodies that feed these magma channels.  This means that following the peak of an eruption such a channel can thus remain open for considerable time,” adds Freysteinn.

By connecting these three factors together into one methodology a new approach to understand magma movements was created. The method was then applied to the Iceland unrest and large-scale eruption in 2014-2015 to demonstrate its applicability. “The series of events can be explained by the existence of magma below Bárðabunga for a long time prior to the eruption.  The rock surrounding the magma yielded creating space for the magma.  Evaluation of the magma and rock’s density shows that the magma could easily flow upwards.  The magma was thus almost ready to burst forward, needing only a small inflow of additional magma to start the eruption. Thus a sustained magma channel was formed from the magma accumulation area resulting in a large drop in pressure leading to the caldera formation in Bárðarbunga,” explains Freysteinn.

The results are important as the method developed can be applied to all volcanoes.  “The method points to certain features that scientists and those who monitor volcanoes need to consider when estimating if a new eruption will begin. Large eruptions can occur with only minor precursory activity,” concludes Freysteinn.

Can AI and satellites help predict volcanic eruptions?

Work led by COMET scientists Juliet Biggs and Andy Hooper is developing new methods for using artificial intelligence and satellite data monitor and potentially help predict volcanic eruptions.

Their work is described in a Nature article, published on 7 March 2019,  which outlines how Juliet’s team at Bristol is using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 mission, alongside machine learning, to spot the formation of ground distortions around volcanoes.

View of Mount Agung erupting in the afternoon.
Agung volcano on the Indonesian island of Bali erupts in November 2017. Credit: Donal Husni/Zuma

Meanwhile at Leeds, Andy’s team is using a technique that searches for changes in the satellite data. Where the ground around a volcano is deforming, their method can flag if the distortion speeds up, slows down, or changes in some other way, allowing researchers to detect even small ground alterations.

The full article by Alexandra Witze, available to read in Nature, is How AI and satellites could help predict volcanic eruptions.


Researchers track sneaky Eastern Rift emissions

COMET researchers at the University of Oxford have estimated the total carbon emissions emanating from the Eastern Rift – the eastern branch of the East African Rift, a zone near the horn of East Africa where the crust stretches and splits.

A hot spring bubbling with carbon dioxide in Ethiopia near the Main Ethiopian Rift. Credit: Jonathan Hunt

The new study published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, led by COMET PhD student Jonathan Hunt, working alongside Tamsin Mather and David Pyle as well as colleagues from Oxford and Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, extrapolates from soil carbon dioxide surveys to estimate that the Eastern Rift emits somewhere between 3.9 and 32.7 million metric tons (Mt) of carbon dioxide each year.

The research demonstrates how, even near some seemingly inactive volcanoes, carbon dioxide from melted rock seeps out through cracks in the surrounding crust.

You can read more about the study on the Deep Carbon Observatory website.

The full reference is: Hunt JA, Zafu A, Mather TA, Pyle DM, Barry PH (2017) Spatially variable CO2 degassing in the Main Ethiopian Rift: Implications for magma storage, volatile transport and rift-related emissionsGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems doi: 10.1002/2017GC006975


Intrusive activity at Cerro Azul Volcano, Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

Cerro Azul is the southernmost active volcano on Isabela Island, Galápagos (Ecuador). On 18-19 March 2017, seismic activity increased on the SE flank of the volcano.

On the same day, the Instituto Geofisico Escuela Politécnica National (IGEPN), the organisation responsible for the monitoring of Ecuadorian volcanoes, issued a warning for a possible imminent eruption.

The recorded seismicity was composed of volcano tectonic (VT) earthquakes, consistent with processes of rock fracturing, with the majority of the events having magnitude ranging between 2.4 and 3.  There were also sporadic events with magnitude up to 3.6 (see the second activity update released by IGEPN on 24 March).

The Sentinel-1 satellite acquired synthetic aperture radar data on 7  and 8 of March, prior to the onset of the seismic activity, and on 19 and 20 March, once seismicity started to exceed background levels both in terms of number of earthquakes and of energy release.

Applying SAR interferometric techniques (e.g. InSAR) showed significant deformation (up to 14 cm) in the region affected by the seismic swarm. More specifically, the InSAR data shows uplift at the southeastern flank of the volcano and contemporary subsidence centered at the summit of the volcano.

Sentinel-1 interferogram showing deformation caused by the magmatic intrusion as of 20 March 2017. Each color fringe corresponds to ~2.8 cm of displacement in the direction between the ground and the satellite.

COMET researcher Marco Bagnardi, working with the IGEPN, carried out a preliminary analysis of the InSAR data and observed that the deformation (at least as of 20 March 2017) can be explained by the intrusion of a 20-40 million cubic meters sill at a depth of ~5 km beneath the surface of the volcano.

Modelling results from the inversion of InSAR data. The proposed model is composed of a horizontal sill intrusion at ~5 km depth (black rectangle) fed by a deflating source at ~6 km depth (black star).

Such intrusion is likely to be fed by a 6 km deep reservoir, cantered beneath the summit of the volcano. The location of the intrusion well matches the location of the seismicity recorded by IGEPN.

Earthquake locations between 13 and 25 March 2017. Credit: IGEPN “Informe Especial Cerro Azul No. 2 – 2017”.

Marco Bagnardi said: “Within ten hours from receiving the warning from IGEPN, we were able to get hold of the most recent Sentinel-1 data for the area, process them to form differential interferograms, invert the data to infer the source of the observed deformation, and pass on the information to our Ecuadorian colleagues.”

The seismic activity seems to be continuing today.  IGEPN is currently proposing two possible scenarios for the evolution of this episode of volcanic unrest:

  • the intrusion could reach the surface and feed an effusive eruption in the coming days or weeks, as happened in 1998 and 2008; or
  • seismic activity and deformation could return to background level without the eruption of magma at the surface.

The next Sentinel-1 acquisitions will be on 1 and 2 April.  They will hopefully shed more light on the nature of the magmatic intrusion and on its evolution since 20 March.





Andy Hooper receives 2016 AGU Macelwane Medal

Congratulations to COMET scientist Professor Andy Hooper, who has been awarded the American Geophysical Union (AGU) James B. Macelwane Medal in recognition of his contributions to the geophysical sciences.


Established in 1961, the medal is given to outstanding early career scientists who have shown depth, breadth, impact, creativity and novelty in their research.

Professor Hooper, who is also Co-Director of the Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics at University of Leeds, pioneered the development of new software (StaMPS) to extract ground displacements from time series of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) acquisitions.  StaMPS is now used widely across the Earth Observation community.

He also discovered a new link between ice cap retreat and volcanism via geodetic monitoring from space and subsequent modelling of the 2010 Icelandic volcanic eruptions, and played a significant role in the €6m FUTUREVOLC project, leading the long-term deformation effort to integrate space and ground based observations for improved monitoring and evaluation of volcanic hazards.

Alongside other COMET researchers, he was part of a team contributing to the international scientific response to the earthquake which devastated Nepal in April 2015.

Most recently, working with colleagues from Iceland, he has shed new light on how volcanoes collapse during major eruptions, focusing on the 2014-15 eruption at Bárdarbunga.

Eruption column and lava flow from the air on 22 September 2014. Credit:Thórdís Högnadóttir
Eruption column and lava flow at Bárdarbunga, 22 September 2014. Credit: Thórdís Högnadóttir

Professor Hooper will be presented with the award at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting, where he will also be giving a talk at the Union Session focusing on the new generation of scientists, where he will also be conferred an AGU fellow.

Congratulations Andy from all your colleagues at COMET.

Read more about the latest AGU awards