No, we did not ‘predict’ an eruption

The last seven days have been a bit of a whirlwind for me. Not only did I start my new job as a lecturer at the University of Exeter (Cornwall campus), but I had a paper published in Scientific Reports. The paper generated quite a media buzz with all sorts of flashy headlines attached. Unfortunately, not all these headlines were strictly correct – there was definitely some sensationalised exaggeration going on, a point correctly picked up on in Erik Klemetti’s blog about how to be a savvy science-news reader. While my co-authors and I are obviously grateful for our research to get a bit of press, I want to take a second to explain the research and what it means in my own, un-edited words.


A selection of the news headlines…

First and foremost, we did not ‘predict’ an eruption. We never used that word, and we never will. A more common word to use in volcanology, and natural hazards research in general, is ‘forecast’. A forecast differs from a prediction as it includes a certain level of uncertainty, i.e., something MAY happen in some period of time, whereas a prediction might say something WILL happen on some given date (e.g., Friday 13th January 2017). You can think of it in similar terms to the weather, where you get a forecast of what the weather MIGHT do over the next 24 hours (and everyone knows that the forecast becomes less and less reliable as time period goes up – never trust a 5 day forecast, especially in Cornwall!). But enough about prediction vs. forecast – I’ll save that for its own blog post some other time*.

Our paper was about the Sakurajima volcano / Aira caldera magmatic system in Japan. Sakurajima is Japan’s most active volcano, producing regular small and localised explosions most days. However, the eruptive history of this volcano is also littered with more violent and deadly events. A large eruption in 1914 killed 58 people, produced huge lava flows and caused the ground to subside a metre leading to widespread flooding. Of concern to the local authorities now is whether this volcano is likely to see an increase in its current level of activity and produce an eruption similar in scale to the 1914 event.


Sakurajima volcano sits on the southern rim of Aira caldera

To answer this question our research aimed to improve the understanding of the volcanic system. We used data from highly accurate GPS sensors to measure the ground movement around the volcano resulting from the build-up of magma below, and then included data from seismometers and heat-flow measurements. Using advanced, 3D numerical models (that don’t rely on numerous over-simplistic assumptions like the previous models in use) we were able to reconstruct the magma reservoir that feeds the volcanic system. With our approach we could more accurately estimate the magma reservoir location, size and shape, as well as the rate, timing and mechanism of magma supply.

The results matched with other observations and presented a consistent view of the developing magma system – something of a rarity in Earth sciences. They showed that the rate of magma supply was greater than the rate of magma currently being erupted – causing the magma reservoir underground to swell.

Then, to apply our results to some basic eruption forecasting, we took the assumption that for another 1914-sized eruption, the volcano needs to store the same amount of magma that the 1914 eruption threw out – about 1.5 cubic kilometres. Using the magma supply and eruption rates we estimated, and assuming these rates are constant over time (not necessarily true), this would take roughly 130 years from 1914.

So we did not predict when a larger eruption would take place, we estimated the amount of time it would take to store enough magma for a larger, 1914-sized, eruption. An eruption that may or may not happen, or that may happen earlier or later as magma eruption and supply rates change. Our results could even be used to estimate a sliding scale of eruption size with time if all rates do remain constant.


A rough estimate of eruption size with time for a large (paroxysmal) eruption at Sakurajima, assuming all the rates we calculated in our research remain constant, and the entire volume that is stored is subsequently erupted.

Another cool point comes up when we apply our results to a past time period. There was also a large eruption in 1892, and if we use our 130 year timeframe again to accumulate 1.5 cubic kilometres of magma we would estimate a large eruption around 1912 – just two years different to the 1914 event. Not bad, eh?

And that was it **. There were no harbingers of doom in the paper, ‘just’ some fancy new models and application of the results to simple eruption forecasting.


Enjoying the sun and eruptions at Sakurajima in 2013.

* I predict that won’t happen in the next 7 days ;)

** Well, there was actually a lot more that went into the paper, of course. What was equally interesting for us was the fact that our new models provided much better insights (in our opinion) than the models that had been used previously, and these old models have been applied to dozens of volcanoes around the world since the late 1950’s. This leaves plenty of work to be done in the future! Plus more improvements can still be made to the techniques we developed, such is the world of science. Obviously this is not as sexy as apparently ‘predicting’ an eruption, and was not as widely reported by the media.

Volcanoes, hazards and community engagement

I have recently(ish) returned from two weeks of fieldwork in Ecuador and Colombia. These two countries are threatened by a variety of different volcanic hazards (and seismic hazards, too, of course), and this was the motivation for our trip.

The visit was part of the STREVA project – an interdisciplinary research project combining volcanologists and social scientists. The overall aim of the project is to produce plans and protocols that reduce the vulnerability of people and their livelihoods during volcanic eruptions. This includes development of hazard maps, community engagement, risk assessments and improving monitoring strategies.

During this trip we spent a large amount of time meeting with local communities in areas affected by volcanic hazards. We particularly spoke to them about our work on ash and lahars, and collected their feedback both on how they have been affected, and more importantly, how they are managing these issues. By learning how one community has adapted to a certain hazard, we can disseminate these ideas to other affected areas on different volcanoes and in different countries.

Community workshop in Guayabal, Colombia.

Community workshop in Guayabal, Colombia.

Another way to build resilience against future volcanic eruptions is to learn from past experiences. This point has been captured perfectly (I think so, at least) by a series of short videos produced by the STREVA project. They honour the memory of the Armero disaster in 1985 in which over 20,000 people lost their lives to a lahar from the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The trilogy takes you through the heartfelt and sombre memories of some survivors, how they have since moved on and now live with the volcano, to the work of the Servicio Geologico Colombiano, who monitor the volcano for future activity. We had the pleasure of showing these videos to a number of communities in pop-up-open-air-cinema style, and they were very well received. Tears, laughs and applause all round.

One of the public viewings of the Nevado Del Ruiz STREVA films.

The videos are now available on YouTube through the STREVA channel, and you can also catch them showing this week at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly who have their very own ‘GeoCinema‘. You will not be disappointed.

Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

(Originally posted on the Bristol University BDC Blog)

Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.

The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).

Cotopaxi volcano. 5897m ASL.

Cotopaxi volcano. 5897m ASL.

The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.

The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.

Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.

As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.

Science Snap (#33): Earth Science Week

(Originally posted on the Between a Rock blog)

Earth Science Week is an international initiative to promote the great work that goes on in the geoscience community. It encompasses a huge range of topics; from dinosaurs to glaciers, and volcanoes to meteorites. There’s something for everybody. For an overview of how geoscience can have a positive influence on local communities and save lives, check out this video from the AGU:

For Earth Science Week, events are taking place here in the UK, organised by the Geological Society, as well as across the Atlantic in the US, where the American Geosciences Institute are coordinating things. To get an idea of the sorts of activities that are happening and see where you can get involved, you can check out their websites here and here.

So far my favourite initiative has been the release of the 100 top ‘Geosites’ in the UK. This list, compiled by the Geological Society and voted on by members of the general public, represents the best the UK has to offer in various geological categories (e.g. landscapes, adventurous, educational, and so on). You can view the ‘Geosites’ in an interactive map, and there are some great pictures to flick through in a BBC News article.

Precariously balanced, these are the Brimham rocks in North Yorkshire, part of the top 100 'Geosites' in the UK. Image credit: BBC News.

Seemingly precariously balanced, these are the Brimham rocks in North Yorkshire, part of the top 100 ‘Geosites’ in the UK. Image credit: BBC News.

Things I wish I knew when I started my PhD…

As the academic year begins again, new PhD students across the country (and further) are slowly settling into their fresh surroundings. I stayed at the same university when I made the switch to postgraduate research but I still remember feeling quite lost at the start, not knowing what to do or where to be. I’m now entering the final year of my studies and have (I hope) picked up some useful knowledge along the way.

So I’ll cut right to the point: below is a list of handy tips, tricks, general advice and things I wish I knew when I started my PhD. The list was put together from chats with other PhD friends of mine, but is by no means exhaustive (nor is it in any particular order, though it did get quite long…). Hopefully it will help somebody. Please share your comments at the bottom if you have things to add – the more the merrier.

(Originally posted on the Between a Rock blog)

1. Learn Latex.

This beautiful typesetting program may seem scary at first but it will help you create very organised and professional looking documents. It also sorts the layout for you, thus avoiding that awkward problem in MS Word when you need to insert a figure into the beginning of a document that you’ve already spent hours getting right (we’ve all been there!). It is also really well documented online, with hundreds of help pages and forums, not to mention templates of ready-made documents. Even PhD thesis templates (e.g. from Charly here).

2. Use Bibtex.

Avoid needlessly hand typing out hundreds of references! Linked to (1), Bibtex is an additional package that automatically outputs and typesets your reference lists, depending on the citations you call in your document. You’ll need a Bibtex file, but that’s easy with (3).

3. Keep your papers organised.

Using some software to keep all the pdf’s of journal articles and papers you’ve read in order is essential. Bibdesk is useful and comes with most Latex/Bibtex installations. Others include Mendeley, which is free and can sync across multiple computers (this is what I use), and Papers, which has a small initial cost. All three can produce the bibtex file you need to automatically create reference lists in (2).

4. Keep a formatted list of your own publications and conference abstracts as you go along.

It will make things much easier when you need to provide these sorts of things if you start applying for postdocs.

5. Always give conference abstracts different titles.

Even if you’re presenting the exact same research, make sure you give it a new title – it will look much better in the long run, especially on your list of publications/abstracts in (4).

6. Keep on top of your emails.

This is two fold. Firstly, organise your inbox with folders so you can easily find emails months after they were received. Secondly, if emails need a response get them out of the way early. Continually putting this off may result in you forgetting entirely and missed opportunities. Personally I try to get all my emails in order each morning when I first get to the office.

Poor email and time management can cause unwanted issues... Image credit:

Poor email and time management can cause unwanted issues… Image credit:

7. Manage time.

Time management is key when trying to balance your research with teaching/demonstrating duties, a personal life and anything else you get up to. A routine may help with this, see (27).

8. Hypothesis testing.

At least from the science background I know, hypothesis testing is key to a successful research project. Related to your overall science aims, think about what you would like to test and keep this is mind so you stay focused on your original goals. Having a hypothesis to test ensures you have an overall scientific aim, which is especially useful if someone new you meet asks you what your research is about.

9. Keep detailed notes.

Of everything. All the time. Whether this is a lab book, a diary, or a note book with model edits and useful computing commands, write everything down. Keeping it chronological with dated entries is also very useful. This is one of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started. Keeping notes in this way will make it much easier for you to revisit old research and remember what you were thinking at the time. It will also make getting back into your research after a holiday, conference, or workshop etc., much simpler. Even after a weekend, it will allow you to pick up where you left off before you stopped early and went for that end-of-week drink.

10. Avoid perfectionism.

When you’re making that final figure, or drafting a paper manuscript or conference abstract, don’t spend ages making small incremental changes in search of the perfect final piece. Chances are it will change. And then change again. If you’re preparing a piece of work that will be commented on by your supervisor or other co-authors, your best bet is to just get it to an acceptable standard and send it off for those comments asap. The sooner you get it away and then back, the quicker you can see what your ‘superiors’ think of it and incorporate their comments before firing them back the second draft. This short, sharp iterative procedure often works out quicker in the long run.

11. Always give deadlines when you want feedback.

If you’re sending your supervisor or co-authors a document for comments always specify a deadline. This may seem scary at first, but take a note from outside academia – nothing in industry goes anywhere without a deadline. E.g. if you’re drafting a manuscript for a paper, tell them you will submit it in 2 weeks so they have until then to get their comments to you.

12. Source additional funding.

Chances are you will see various emails come and go mentioning possibilities for additional funding to attend conferences or fieldwork, for example. As funding for science is getting cut, this sort of extra money becomes even more important. Once you learn of something that may be useful now or in the future, keep it written down in a list somewhere. Then, when the time comes, you can revisit the list and start applying for the money you will (almost definitely) need. Talking to other PhD students and postdocs in your group is also useful for this to see what sorts of things they might have applied for in the past.

13. Write as you go.

This is pretty self-explanatory, but writing as you work your way through your PhD years will make the thesis much less of a monster when you come to the end. Writing up papers to adapt into thesis chapters is a useful way to go about this, with the added benefit of getting your name into the scientific community of your chosen specialisation.

14. Don’t be scared of your supervisors.

They are there to help you after all.

15. Log out of Facebook.

Yep, it’s sad but true. Facebook (and other social media for that matter) has become an integral part of society, but with all the buzzfeed quizzes, videos of kittens and “I fucking love science”, it can (obviously) be a massive distraction. Log out while you’re actually working and try to restrict yourself to only checking while you’re having short study breaks or lunch.

The perils of Facebook in the office... Image credit:

The perils of Facebook in the office… Image credit:

16. Keep an eye on your budget.

This links back to (12). If your PhD funding comes with a certain amount for research costs, conference travel, and fieldwork etc., make sure you know how much you’re spending and how much you have left.

17. Diversify yourself.

One of the beauties of doing a PhD is the numerous opportunities that will become available to you during your studies. You should indulge – go to as many additional courses and workshops as you can. This is a great way to improve things like science communication, outreach, presenting, and scientific writing, amongst other subject specific skills.

18. Music.

If listening to music while you work is your thing, you’re going to want to get yourself some decent noise cancelling head/ear phones to drown out all other unwanted office distractions. This also works the other way, and stops your office mates from having to hear your music. You may like the Spice Girls, but they might not…

19. Get your workstation set up.

This has a variety of levels. First and foremost is your desk and chair combo. Ensure this is as ergonomic as possible to prevent discomfort down the line – you could be sitting here for 40+ hours a week for 3+ years. Next is your computer. Hopefully your supervisor will provide you with one, but you may need to lean on other members from your research group for assistance to set up the internet, printing and any software/hardware you need for your specific research. Plenty of help is also available online. For those of you who use a Mac, a lecturer in our department has put together a page called ‘Mac Eye For The Geophysics Guy’ which has lots of useful tips for configuring a Mac for scientific research. It has a slight geophysics and Bristol University slant, but a lot of it will be useful for others too. Last is working out where you will get your hydration from. Source out the kettle/water dispenser/coffee shop of choice and work out if there are any common times when people break for a caffeine fix. Hydration is key to a clear and alert mind, while taking breaks with your colleagues will ensure you don’t get too locked up in your own research and go for hours without talking to anyone but the computer screen…!

20. Take notes in meetings.

This is linked back to (9), but making sure you write everything down, even when you might be in an important meeting with fast-paced discussion, is essential if you want to remember what was said and decided upon a few weeks later. If it doesn’t seem important at the time, it may well prove to be extremely useful in the future.

Being well read on your PhD topic, as well as the wider field, is key to a successful PhD.

Being well read on your PhD topic, as well as the wider field, is key to a successful PhD.

21. Read around your subject.

This is important to ensure you know where your own PhD fits within the bigger picture, and the overall aims of your field of research.

22. Write a literature review.

I didn’t do this when I started my PhD but I wish I had. After reading up on your subject, and then around your subject, you will hopefully have a good idea of the current state of research. Now is the time to formulate your own research ideas, and hypotheses to test, and get this all written into a concise literature review. Chances are it will eventually form the basis of your PhD thesis introduction chapter.

23. Socialise!

When deadlines are tight and things aren’t going well it can be easy to retreat into your own little research cave. But try to avoid this where possible (sometimes it might be impossible). Keeping contact with friends or meeting work colleague outside of the lab is good for morale and to help you forget about the troubles you may have been facing during the working day.

24. Sport and/or hobbies.

Engaging in some exercise a few times a week will work wonders to reduce your stress levels as well as keep you healthy and in good shape. Likewise, starting or continuing a hobby will also help you to relax after a long day or week (baking seems popular in our department and has the added benefit of making others happy too).

25. Go to conferences and workshops.

There are multiple benefits here. Conferences allow you to present your work to people, as well as learn about the most up-and-coming advances in your field. Workshops are excellent opportunities to learn new skills, often from the people that first pioneered them. Both, however, should be used to network.

26. Network.

Building up a network of researchers and industry contacts in your field can prove invaluable down the line. It may open up new study visits and exchanges during your PhD, or it can help you to secure a postdoc or job upon finishing your PhD. Don’t be shy about approaching an established professor at a conference – chances are they will be just as excited to learn about what you’re doing as you are to speak to them. Business cards can be useful here, though they are not super common in academia.

27. Establish a routine.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but some people like to set up a routine to allow them to manage their time more effectively. This may include things like exercising on certain days at certain times, set days for grocery shopping or batch cooking, and fixed working hours, amongst many other possibilities.

Take the lead of your own PhD!

Take the lead of your own PhD!

28. Take the lead.

Always remember it is YOUR project and YOUR paper and YOUR thesis. Even if you chose a predefined PhD project, it is up to you to decide how it progresses and which research leads you follow up. These are your steps to proving yourself as an independent researcher, so do just that!

29. Practice presenting your work.

Conference talks make everyone nervous, but there is no better way to prepare than by practicing. This could start off by you talking to an empty room, before taking on your research group and then maybe a departmental seminar of some sort. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel when you’re stood up the front – eventually the research will be rolling off your tongue with ease.

30. Be prepared for the worse.

One of life’s great mottos is “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”. A PhD is no different. You should be expecting things to go wrong at some point. It might not, but chances are something will not go to plan at some point. This can be particularly true if your project involves a lot of lab work. But rest assured, if this does happen it’s not the end of the world, and there are usually people around for support and help. Search them out.

31. Back up, and back up again.

Hard drives are notoriously unreliable. Coffee easily spills. Laptops are easily stolen. Not what you wanted to hear I would imagine, but these things can easily result in the loss of a lot of work. Prevent this from happening by constantly backing up your work. Back it up to different places (the cloud, external hard drives) and keep the back ups in different places to each other and the originals.

32. Small steps to success.

Don’t focus too much on long term goals (publishing papers, finishing the thesis); remember to walk before you run as it were. Aim for small progressive steps that lead to the bigger goals – finishing a set of analyses, producing some summary figures etc. It’s all good for morale.

33. Keep on top of admin.

Yes, it’s boring and can be time-consuming but it needs to be done, especially if it includes making sure you get paid for teaching or demonstrating. Getting stuff like this out of the way can easily be done while you wait for an analysis to run or a simulation to finish for example.


The most important thing of all :).

Smile and enjoy it!

Smile and enjoy it!

Tragic Sinabung Eruption

Originally posted on the Between a Rock blog and the EGU blog network.

Last Saturday (1st February 2014) an eruption at Sinabung volcano in Indonesia claimed the lives of 14 people. That death toll has since risen to 16, and could rise further as people battle in hospital with severe burns and other wounds.

A local villager runs from the eruption of Sinabung volcano in Indonesia. Image credit: BBC News.

A local villager runs from the eruption of Sinabung volcano in Indonesia. Image credit: BBC News.

The volcano has been erupting since September 2013 and over 30,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. The Friday before the latest eruption, anxious citizens were allowed back to check on their homes. Many had been sneaking back into the exclusion zone anyway. And herein lies the danger. Despite the obvious inconvenience of being away from home for such a period of time, exclusion zones and evacuations are there for protection and safety. This tragic event is the result of people becoming too complacent around a volcano with a prolonged eruption, and locals not fully understanding the risks associated with such situations.

Hopefully this will serve as a timely reminder, to both locals and scientists. The perennial need for better communication between scientists, locals and civil protection authorities isn’t going away.