Archive | May, 2013

Timelapse volcanoes in Google’s Earth Engine

10 May

With the marvels of technology and the generosity of Google and NASA, we can now sit back and watch the back catalogue of volcanic eruptions using the magnificent Google Earth Timelapse of Landsat images. Here are just a few that I have picked out..

Enjoy, and do send more suggestions!

Anatahan, Marianas, erupted in 2005.  Anatahan Timelapse

Chaiten, Chile. Erupted in May 2008: look for the splash of ash.  Chaiten Timelapse

Miyakejima, Japan – a spectacular caldera-forming event in 2000.  Miyakejima Timelapse

Pinatubo, Philippines. Major eruption in 1991; thanks to Ron Schott for this.  Pinatubo Timelapse

Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat. Erupting since 1995: watch the island grow.  Montserrat Timelapse

Lake Voui, Aoba volcano, Ambae island, Vanuatu, erupted in 2005-6.  Lake Voui Timelapse

Who should set the research agenda in Universities?

9 May

Universities are complex, organic institutions. Their heart is the academic hub of scholarship and research, sustained  by the ever-changing life-blood of students who come through to learn, to challenge, to grow, and ultimately to leave,  having left their mark on those who have taught them. The excitement of working in a University environment is the daily experience of being challenged to think in new ways to solve old problems. Teaching  forces you to develop a perspective on problems in a way that then allows you to explain them to students. In turn, this can bring new clarity to your research, giving you new ways to come at the problem, and new ways of seeing things. And then, of course, that new understanding feeds back into the teaching.

To support all of this activity, though, requires money, and a lot of it. Money for people, for buildings, and for the resources that underpin scholarship. To give an idea of scale, Oxford University receives about £1000 M in income every year. Of this billion pounds, less than 20% comes from student fees, while over £400 M arrives in external grants and contracts from research sponsors. Most of this money for research comes in the form of project grants: funding solicited by an investigator, or group of investigators, to solve a problem that they have defined. But of course, there is never enough project grant income to go around. Success rates for applications to the major funding bodies (research councils, charities) are often 20% or lower and, increasingly, it is difficult to find the funding  to replace, overhaul, or even just to maintain the essential services and facilities that everyone relies on to keep the research flowing. With this as a backdrop, and with the global competition for the best scholars and researchers, it is perhaps only natural for Universities to look to diversify their research income.

In the field of science, there is a great deal of high quality research that goes on that is pushing entirely at the ‘blue skies’ frontiers of knowledge. This curiosity-driven research is, perhaps, most likely to be funded by research councils or charities. But scientific research has also always been about solving problems, and about equipping people with the intellectual and other skills to solve ‘real world’ problems. Recent years have seen a huge growth in activities related to identifying and understanding the drivers behind global environmental change. And currently, there are great efforts to understand and to tackle the leading problems that will define the next twenty to thirty years of environmental research: the future of food, of energy, of biodiversity, and natural resources. So who should set the research agenda in this area? And should there be areas that are out of bounds? There are no easy answers, but would it be appropriate for students of Earth Sciences not to explore fully the questions of how natural resources form? Or not to be exposed to the global challenges of how to meet the unsustainable but growing demands for energy and materials that are still being driven by consumption in the developed world? At the heart of it, research in Universities remains in the hands of the researchers. It is they who set the research agenda, and find pathways to the solutions. If Universities have become more effective at facilitating researchers to seek external funding to support their research, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Today sees the formal opening, in Oxford, of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory. This partnership provides £5.9M funding for a small number of staff (a Professorship, and several post-doctoral researchers and graduate research students), and some core laboratory equipment. The sum of money involved (equivalent to ca. £1M/yr over about 5 years) is, indeed, significant in the context of a research group – but is both a tiny proportion of Oxford’s annual research income (< 0.25%), and a small fraction of current external funding received by Oxford for studies into Earth, the Environment and the Climate System: Oxford’s current research portfolio from the Natural Environment Research Council currently exceeds £60 M. This does not look like funding that is buying ‘influence over the research agenda‘.

If we wish to demand greater social responsibility from the major global institutions, would it not be better to focus, as ShareAction are doing, on the rather more significant interests that Universities in general, and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) Pension Fund in particular, hold through their investment portfolios?  In 2012, USS alone held investments of £900 M in the ‘hydrocarbon’ sector, and over £500 M in the minerals and mining sectors. Wisely used, that looks like a lot of leverage.

Chaiten: anniversary of an eruption

1 May

May 1st marks the anniversary of the start of the first historical eruption of Chaiten, a small volcano in southern Chile, in 2008. A lot has been written on the eruption elsewhere, starting with Erik Klemetti’s eruptions blog which first reported on the event at the time. This is an opportunity to share some field photos, which I took during field visits to Chaiten in 2009. At the time of the eruption, Chaiten was not well known,  but it was recognised to be an old dome of obsidian lava, last thought to have erupted about ten thousand years previously. In fact, we now know that Chaiten has a long history of explosive eruptions of  rhyolite magma, and is probably one of the most prolific producers of rhyolite in southern Chile.

The snapshots illustrate some of the transient consequences of explosive, ash-rich eruptions for both people, and the environment; and some of the excitement of  trying to read the deposits before they have been washed away. Enjoy!

Further reading: a special issue of the Open Access journal ‘Andean Geology‘ on the Chaiten eruption was published in May 2013. This issue contains a number of papers that describe the 2008 eruption and its consequences, and others that reconstruct the past history of this volcano.


Ash and leaf litter


Prints in the ash


Impressions in ash


Ash in the undergrowth


“Chaiten will not die”


“We want to return to Chaiten, our little town”


Wood shavings


Chaiten bay, choked with pumice

Approaching Chaiten

Approaching Chaiten


Survey spot


Field volcanology


Evening glow

Acknowledgements: funding for fieldwork on Chaiten and elsewhere in southern Chile was provided by grants from NERC and the British Council. Field collaborators included Fabrizio Alfano, Constanza Bonadonna, Chuck Connor, Laura Connor and Seb Watt.

Further reading:

JJ Major and LA Lara, 2013, Overview of Chaiten volcano, Chile, and its 2008-2009 eruption, Andean Geology 40 (2), 196-215. [Open Access]

SFL Watt et al., 2009, Fallout and distribution of volcanic ash over Argentina following the May 2008 explosive eruption of Chaiten, Chile, Journal of Geophysical Research 114 (B04207).

SFL Watt et al., 2013, Evidence of mid- to late-Holocene explosive rhyolitic eruptions from Chaitén Volcano, Chile,  Andean Geology 40 (2), 216-226. [Open Access]