Into the Inferno: an anth(rop)ology of volcanoes

Into the Inferno: an anth(rop)ology of volcanoes

What do volcanoes mean to you? This is perhaps not a question to ask a volcanologist (cue: a paean to their current flame); but what do they mean to the publics? Fire and brimstone? Death and destruction? Of humans pitted against mountains? Or is it something else? Perhaps the answer is obvious, but it is certainly something we need to think about when preparing for an audience: what will they expect to find? and how can I surprise them?

It is a question that the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer has pondered for some time. Five years ago his book ‘Eruptions that Shook the World‘ caught the attention of film director, Werner Herzog. They had already met earlier (on the Antarctic volcano, Erebus, of course); and have now released the fruits of their collaboration on Netflix.

Running at 1 hr 44 minutes, Into the Inferno is part anthology, part anthropology, and part conversation between volcanologist and film-maker. Taking in breathtaking footage of some of the volcanoes ‘du jour’, Herzog and Oppenheimer explore their own, rather different, attractions to volcanoes – as objects; as cultural symbols; as places incidental to the life and living that goes on around them.

Clive Oppenheimer introducing 'Into the Inferno' at the Cambridge Film Festival

Clive Oppenheimer introducing ‘Into the Inferno’ at the end of the 36th Cambridge Film Festival

For Herzog, volcanoes are not the main attraction. Sitting on the rim of Erebus, the world’s most southerly volcano, it is almost as if he couldn’t care less about the fuming crater below. It’s the people, and their stories that he wants to capture.  So it is that the film takes us from the roiling chasm of the crater of Mt Yasur on Tanna, to the verdant slopes of Ambrym: devastated in a hurricane just the year before, but with the scars hidden by the new tropical growth. Here, Chief Mael Moses explains how the volcano is a part of the neighbourhood, but not a part of their lives. Later, he relates a story of how, glimpsing into the crater, he explains how the swirling fires looked like the tumbling waters of the sea; and of what this implies for the future.

Exploring the origins of the film takes Werner Herzog and crew back to Erebus; while the origins of Clive Oppenheimer’s relationships with volcanoes takes him to Toba, Sinabung and Merapi: into an observatory bunker room, stocked with a month’s supplies of food, and a Church in the shape of a chicken; or is it a dove? The search for human origins and volcanoes takes us to the Danakil desert of Afar, Ethiopia; where Tim White has just found the skeleton of another early human. Entombed in the ashes a hundred thousand years ago, and exhumed as the visitors arrive. The origin tale takes us to the Codex Regius and Iceland, where we hear the stories of eruptions of Heimay, Eyjafjallajokull and the great Laki fires of 1783. En route, newsreel of past eruptions are spliced with some footage from the peerless volcano filmmakers, Maurice and Katia Krafft. Katia sampling, as surging rolls of lava surf in a channel, and a moment of Chaplin-esqe fun as a foil-coated Maurice toddles towards a wall of fire. Footage of the hot rock avalanche and surging pyroclastic cloud that brought their lives, and the lives of 41 others, to an abrupt end in Japan in 1991 creates a pause for reflection.

To conclude his curious tales of people around volcanoes, Herzog takes us to the mysterious and closed world of DPRK (North Korea). This is a country under international sanction, with rhetoric that is throwback to the last century. Its northern border is anchored by the ‘long white mountain’, the volcano known as Paektu-san in Korea, and Changbaishan in China. This volcano looms large in the national psyche, with links to the nation’s origins, and those of the present regime; and where the Paektu-san song is almost a national anthem.

Volcanoes as icons: Mt Paektu, on the DPRK (North Korea) - Chinese border

Volcanoes as icons: Mt Paektu, on the DPRK (North Korea) – Chinese border

This is a delightful film that shows off volcanoes and their context in a quirky and entertaining way. In a cinema setting, the mesmerising footage and soundscape pull you right in to the crater. But ‘Into the Inferno’ is about much more than fire and brimstone; it gives voices to the people who live, work on or are drawn to volcanoes, revealing in their own words what it is, or is not, that volcanoes symbolise for them, and their kin.


The smallest volcanic island in the world?

The smallest volcanic island in the world?
Oshima Ko Jima on May 4, 1805

Oshima Ko Jima on May 4, 1805. Sketch by Wilhelm Tilesius.

One of the delights of talking to children of primary school age is their disarming ability to ask really simple questions that demand straightforward answers, but leave you struggling to throw your academic caution to the wind. Even with the questions of the biggest, the smallest, the oldest and the youngest there are still different ways of (over)interpreting the question, that can leave you floundering. So for those of you looking for a clear answer to ‘what is the smallest volcanic island in the world?’, here is a suggestion of an answer from the early 19th Century. In 1805, Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius was engaged as the physician, naturalist and draftsman on the Russian ship Nadezhda, on the first Russian circumnavigation of the world. In May 1805, they were sailing across the sea of Japan and past the Matsumae peninsula in northern Hokkaido, heading for Kamchatka, when they came across two small volcanic islands ‘Oosima and Coosima’. Tilesius described Coosima (Oshima Ko Jima) as ‘perhaps the most diminutive volcanic island in the world’, noting that it was essentially a small pointed rock, which was incessantly smoking. The island was just ‘150 fathoms’, or 270 m, tall; lacking in vegetation and made of dark blue lavas with a weatherbeaten dark-red skirt around the base. Tilesius made all of his observations from on-board ship, as it took a quick tour around the island, and describes ‘light coloured smoke’ and ‘blue sulphur flame’ from the summit crater. Tilesius’ paper suggesting that this was the world’s smallest volcanic island soon found it’s way into Charles Daubeny‘s ‘Active and Extinct Volcanoes‘, and shortly afterwards in a number of popular periodicals of the time. Whether – with an area of 1.5 square kilometers – it really is the world’s smallest volcanic island; and whether it is actually ‘active’ are both moot points; in fact, so little seems to be known about the island that the Smithsonian catalogue still lacks a photograph of it.

Dr W Tilesius, 1820, On the Volcano called by the Japanese Coosima and situated in the neighbourhood of Cape Sangar, in the archipelago of Japan, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol III, no 6, October 1820, pp. 349-358.

Living with volcanoes, and learning from the past.

Living with volcanoes, and learning from the past.

November 13th, 1985, is a date that is still etched in my memory. This was the day that the Colombian town of Armero was submerged beneath a catastrophic flood of volcanic rocks, mud and water; a lahar that had swept down from the summit of the volcano Nevado del Ruiz, erupting about 40 kilometres away. For days, terrible scenes of anguish and despair filled our television screens, as rescuers struggled desperately to help the survivors, and recover the many thousands of victims. Thirty years on, and Colombia has one of the most sophisticated national volcano monitoring systems in the world, run from a network of observatories by the Servicio Geologico Colombiano (SGC). But what of the people of Armero; the survivors, and those who still live at the foot of the restless volcano, Nevado del Ruiz?

Over the past year, researchers from the University of East Anglia and the ‘STREVA‘ project have been working with the SGC and a filmmaker, Lambda films, to collect oral histories, to explore what people recall from that fateful day, and to learn more about how people live with the volcano today. The result is three short films: beautifully shot, tremendously moving, and well worth a few minutes of your time.


The first volcanic eruption to be photographed?

The first volcanic eruption to be photographed?

In the digital era of instant communication, breaking news of volcanic eruptions usually arrive image-first. This year, spectacular eruptions of Calbuco (Chile), Fuego (Guatemala) and Etna (Italy) have all made it into the end-of-year ‘top tens‘, in glorious multicolour detail. But when was the first photograph taken that captured one instant during a volcanic eruption? And which was the first such photograph to make it into print?

One example may be the April 1872 eruption of Vesuvius, Italy. This short and destructive eruption was one of the most violent paroxysms at Vesuvius during the 19th century. The eruption was quickly documented by Luigi Palmieri – Director of the Vesuvius Observatory from 1852 – 1896. His report of the eruption contains a dramatic line drawing of Vesuvius in eruption on 26th April, which the caption implied was a sketch based on a photograph taken from Naples.

Vesuvius in eruption, April 26, 1872.

Vesuvius in eruption, April 26, 1872. Original caption ‘from a photograph taken in the neighbourhood of Naples”. (Palmieri and Mallet, 1873).

Some years later, John Wesley Judd (1881) noted that ‘on the occasion of this outburst [the 1872 eruption], the aid of instantaneous photography was first made available for obtaining a permanent record of the appearances displayed at volcanic eruptions‘. Judd published a woodcut of a photograph as Figure 5, with no further details relating to its origin; but the image is clearly of the same event and from a fairly similar location to that depicted by Palmieri.

Vesuvius, April 1872. Woodcut image.

Vesuvius, April 1872. Woodcut image, originally published as Fig. 5 in Judd (1881).

A very similar image – most likely a photograph from the same sequence seems to have later become a ‘stock’ volcano photograph; appearing as the frontispiece to Edward Hull‘s ‘Volcanoes past and present’ (1892), as Plate 1 in Bonney‘s ‘Volcanoes’ (1899), and even later as a repainted, colour plate in a popular science magazine (Thomson, 1921). 

Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872-3. Frontispiece in Hull (1892).

Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872-3. Frontispiece in Hull (1892). Original caption ‘From a photograph by Negrettti and Zambra’.

Vesuvius 1872 from 'The outline of science', Thomson (1921). Original caption

Vesuvius 1872 from ‘The outline of science’, Thomson (1921). Original caption ‘from a photograph by Negretti and Zambra’.

Both Hull and Thomson credited the photograph to ‘Negretti and Zambra‘, a company specialising in optical, photographic and meteorological instruments, and photographic materials – including lantern slides. A plausible candidate for the original photographer could be Giorgio Sommer, who ran a studio in Naples. Some of his collections of photographs of Vesuvius from this eruption can be found in archives including Luminous Lint and elsewhere. As an indication of the wider circulation of these images at the time, another similar image can be found as a glass plate in the archives of Tempest Anderson; a British opthalmologist and inveterate traveller and photographer of volcanoes in the late 19th Century. Anderson’s scientific volcano photography included documenting the aftermath of the devastating eruptions of the Soufriere, St Vincent, in 1902, some images of which were published in his 1903 illustrated book ‘Volcanic Studies’.

But are these action shots the first ‘instantaneous’ images of an explosive eruption? A quick search reveals a few albumen prints of steaming volcanoes from the latter parts of the 1860’s (including Etna in 1865, by Sommer; Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece in 1866; and an image of Kilauea that perhaps dates from 1865). There are also other images of the April 1872 eruption, although taken from a rather different and less revealing location. So perhaps Judd was right – or do any readers have any other suggestions?

Cited references and further reading. 

Anderson, T (1903) Volcanic Studies. John Murray, London.

Bonney, TG (1899) Volcanoes: their structure and significance. John Murray, London.

Hull, E (1892) Volcanoes: past and present. Walter Scott, London.

Judd, JW (1881) Volcanoes: what they are and what they teach. Kegan Paul, London.

Palmieri, L (1873) The eruption of Vesuvius in 1872. With notes, and an introductory sketch .. by  R. Mallet. Asher and Co., London.

Thomson, JA (1921) The outline of science, George Newnes Ltd., London.

The eruptive history of Vesuvius is documented in Scandone et al., 2008, and listed in the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Programme pages.

About this blog.

I am a volcanologist based in Oxford, UK, with an interest in the stories of past eruptions. My blogs tend to focus on volcanoes – contemporary, recent or ancient. There will be quite a lot of ‘historical volcanology’ in my posts over the next few months, as I am curating an exhibition on volcanoes with Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, which will open in Spring 2017. I am delighted to have joined EGU blogs, and hope that my posts may find some interested readers!


Volcanoes of the Ethiopian Rift Valley

The great Rift Valley of Ethiopia is not only the cradle of humankind, but also the place on Earth where humans have lived with volcanoes, and exploited their resources, for the longest period of time. Perhaps as long ago as 3 Million years, early hominids began to fashion tools from the volcanic rocks from which the Rift Valley was floored, including basalt and obsidian.

IMG_7747_stitch Riftview

View into the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley, on the descent from Butajira to Ziway. Aluto volcano in the centre distance.

The Ethiopian Rift Valley is just one part of the East African Rift system – the largest active continental rift on Earth. While the Ethiopian rift hosts nearly 60 volcanoes that are thought to have erupted in the past 10,000 years, there is only very sparse information about the current status of any of its ‘active’ volcanoes. There are historical records for just two or three eruptions along the MER: 1631 (Dama Ali), and ca. 1820 (Fantale) and (Kone). In contrast, the Afar segment of the rift includes one volcano known to have been in eruption almost continuously since 1873 (Erta Ale), and several other volcanoes that have had major recent or historical eruptions (Dubbi 1400 and 1861; Dabbahu, 2005; the Manda Hararo Rift, 2007, 2009; Dallafilla, 2008, and Nabro, 2011). So are the volcanoes of the MER simply declining into old age and senescence? Or do they continue to pose a threat to the tens of millions of people who live and work the land across this vast region?

IMG_7836_stitch Shalla

Panorama of Lake Shala, part of which fills the huge caldera of O’a volcano.

To address this question, and others, the NERC funded RiftVolc consortium is carrying out a broad-scale investigation of the past eruptive histories, present status and potential for future activity of the volcanoes of the Central Main Ethiopian Rift. This spans eleven known or suspected centres, several of which have suffered major convulsions of caldera-collapse and eruption of great sheets of ignimbrite across the rift floor in the distant past. The first challenge is to piece together the eruptive histories of these volcanoes over the past few tens of thousands of years, and this is something that starts with fieldwork designed to detect the traces of these past events in the rock record. The RiftVolc field team, led by post-doctoral researcher Karen Fontijn, and with doctoral students Keri McNamara (Bristol) and Ben Clarke (Edinburgh) and masters students Amde and Firawalin (AAU) are spending the next five weeks completing a rapid survey of the volcanic ash and pumice deposits preserved within the rift.

IMG_8378_stitch CorbettiEast

Panorama of the eastern caldera of Corbetti volcano.

The first challenge is to identify the tell-tale clues that the sequences of young rocks, soils and sediments contain volcanic deposits. Close to the volcano, we might expect an individual large explosive eruption to leave both thick and coarse deposits; but go too close to the volcano, and there may be so much volcanic material that it can become hard to identify the products of single significant eruptions, as opposed to the ‘background noise’ of smaller but more frequent eruptions.


Karen and Keri examining the young pyroclastic rocks of Corbetti volcano

Out on the flanks of the volcano and beyond, we have the vagaries of geological preservation (did the pumice or ash land somewhere where it would then stay unmodified?) and erosion and weathering (removing or modifying the evidence) to contend with. Each of these factors will depend not only on the nature of the original deposit (how thick it was; what it was made from); but also on the environment in which the deposit formed (on a lake bed? the open savannah?  a forest? On a slope, or not?), and on the subsequent history of that environment (did the lake dry out, or continue to fill with sediment? Did the pumice become stabilised in the grass land; or did it get blown or washed away? How quickly did the soil and vegetation recover after the eruption? How deeply has weathering penetrated in the intervening millennia since the eruption?). Lots of questions to ponder!


Shelly fossils from an ancient lake deposit, interbedded with pumice layers from Aluto volcano

Our long-term goal is to better understand what sort of hazards the Rift’s volcanoes pose to those who live on and around them. There are, of course, much greater immediate challenges to communities in the region linked to the competition for the natural resources (water, land) in this region; but the rapid development of geothermal prospects in the Rift does mean that we need to pay closer attention to the state of the volcanoes that are the source of the geothermal heat.


Fresh road cut section through an obsidian lava dome and drape of pyroclastic rocks, on the way to Urji volcano and Corbetti’s new geothermal power plant

Aside from the volcanoes, the main Ethiopian Rift and its lakes make for a spectacular environment to work in. Despite receding lake levels and failing rains this year, there are vibrant patches of forest and a host of exotic birds and animals to enjoy.


Pair of little bee eaters, Lake Awassa


Flock of flamingo, Lake Chitu


Marabou stork, Lake Ziway





Camels eating Prickly Pear cactus, Corbetti


Ethiopian Fish Eagle, Lake Ziway

Acknowledgements. RiftVolc is a NERC-funded collaborative research project. Many thanks to our Ethiopian collaborators at the Addis Ababa University School of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Geophysics, Space Science and Astronomy (IGSSA) for hosting us and facilitating the joint field campaign; and to Ethioder for providing field vehicles and excellent drivers.

Villarrica erupts. March 3, 2015, Chile.


Volcan Villarrica from the air in 2009.


Villarrica (Ruka Pillan in Mapudungun) is one of the most active volcanoes of southern Chile, and is a popular tourist destination in the heart of the Chilean Lake district. Villarrica has been in a continuous state of steady degassing for much of the past 30 years, since the last eruption in 1984-5, and began showing signs of increased unrest (seismicity, and visible activity in the summit crater) in February 2015. Eruptive activity at Villarrica in 1963-4 and 1971 was characterised by vigorous ‘Strombolian’ explosions from the summit – typically with short paroxysms of fire fountaining – followed by the formation of lava flows. The major hazards at Villarrica come from the lahars, which form as a result of the melting of snow and ice from the summit glacier by the intruding or erupting magma. In 1963 and 1971 the lahars that swept off the volcano caused considerable damage, and a number of fatalities in the affected areas.

At the present day, the volume of ice in the summit region is a little over 1 cubic kilometer. Any melt waters and lahars that may form as a consequence of the volcanic activity are expected to drain along any or several of the nine major lahar channels that were either active during the past eruptions of Villarrica, or have been identified from fieldwork and mapping. Recent work on the sediments from Lake Villarrica show that the transport of volcanic ash into the lake by lahars forms a very clear record of the small eruptions of the volcano that would otherwise not be preserved.

Lahar map

Map showing the nine major lahar channels (in blue) that drain off the summit of Villarrica, The area outlined in red shows the extent of the summit glacier field in Februiary 2011. The main tourist resort of Pucon, and lake Villarrica, lie to the north. In 1964, lahars caused  much damage to the village of Conaripe, to the south. Map from Rivera et al. (2015) , lahar channels from Castruccio et al. (2010).

The first Strombolian paroxysm from the 2015 eruption was reported shortly after 3 am local time on 3rd March; and this was followed by reports on social media of spontaneous evacuations from some of the communities that have been affected by lahars in the past. The Chilean agency responsible for civil protection (ONEMI, Oficina Nacional de Emergencia del Ministerio del Interior y Seguridad Pública) declared a ‘red alert‘ shortly afterwards, and SERNAGEOMIN also raised their technical ‘volcanic alert’ level to red. If the current phase of activity follows the pattern of past eruptions, there may be an extended period of elevated activity with intermittent paroxysms over the next few days to weeks.

This paroxysm just lasted a few tens of minutes, but released large puff of ash that rose to about 9 km above sea level and could be seen on geostationary weather satellites; a burp of sulphur dioxide that was visible from space, and coated the summit of Villarrica with a fresh coating of volcanic ‘spatter’.  On the volcano itself, there was clearly some melting of snow and ice, and small amounts of volcanic ash were washed down the local drainages, and into Lake Villarrica.

The footprint of the ‘hotspots’ associated with the freshly deposited ejecta can be seen in the alerts detected by University of Hawaii’s MODIS Thermal Alert System, using imagery from the MODIS sensors onboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites.

MODVOLC screen shot

Screen shot of the ‘thermal alerts’ detected by the HIGP MODIS Thermal Alert System for Villarrica, on 3 March 2015.

Update – March 5th, 2015.

The eruption was over quite quickly, and although a few thousand people evacuated at the time, most returned home later that day. Flights over Villarrica by the volcano monitoring and civil protection teams on March 3rd, and subsequent days, showed that the summit vent became sealed by fresh spatter during the eruption, but signs of activity diminished very quickly. SERNAGEOMIN reported that only one monitoring station was lost during the eruption, and their current scenario is that there may be some intermittent weak Strombolian activity in the near future, which should be readily detectable on the monitoring systems. Photographs posted on social media showed only little evidence for limited damage by lahars during this first eruption; including damage to a tourist centre on the volcano slopes.

Ongoing Activity

Latest status reports from ONEMI, Chile

Latest status reports from SERNAGEOMIN, Chile

Latest webcam images of Villarrica, from SERNAGEOMIN

Latest Volcanic Ash Advisories from the Buenos Aires VAAC

Further information

Great video footage of the 3rd March eruption from 24Horas

Collections of photos and video from BioBioChile24Horas, Cooperativathe Guardian and SERNAGEOMIN.

Villarrica on Volcano Top Trumps

Villarrica pages at the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Programme.


Castruccio, A. et al., 2010, Comparative study of lahars generated by the 1961 and 1971 eruptions of Calbuco and Villarrica volcanoes, Southern Andes of Chile, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 190, 297-311.

Rivera, A. et al., 2015, Recent changes in total ice volume on Volcan Villarrica, Southern Chile, Natural Hazards 75: 33 – 55

M van Daele, J Moernaut, G Silversmit, S Schmidt, K Fontijn, K Heirman, W Vandoome, M De Clercq, J van Acker, C Wolff, M Pino, R Urrutia, SJ Roberts, L Vincze, M de Batist, 2014, The 600 yr eruptive history of Villarrica volcano (Chile) revealed by annually laminated lake sediments, Geological Society of America, Bulletin doi:10.1130/B30798.1

Landslides, lake tsunamis and the tragedy of Lago Cabrera

Fifty years ago, on 19th February 1965, a rock and ice landslide fell from the summit face of Volcan Yate in southern Chile. It was mid-summer, and was one of the warmest and wettest February records in that part of Chile on record. The debris slid rapidly down a narrow gully, losing at least 1500 metres in elevation, until it emerged into the southern end of a small montane lake. This triggered a small but devastating lake tsunami, that swept through the tiny lakeside community of Lago Cabrera just a few monents later. There was essentially no warning, no time to evacuate; and the event destroyed the village, killing twenty-seven people. This event was the worst volcano-related loss of life in Chile since the destructive lahars associated with the 1948 – 1949 eruptions of Villarrica.

Even in a country as volcanically active as Chile, it is the secondary consequences of volcanic activity that pose the most serious long-term threat to lives and livelihoods: notably lahars, triggered by the melting of snow pack, or remobilised by rainfall events. The Lago Cabrera tragedy is not thought to have been associated with any form of eruptive activity, but was a mass-failure event, not uncommon in mountain environments. In the ice- and snow-capped southern Andes of Chile and Argentina, the wider hazards associated with glacial-lake outburst floods and rock–ice avalanches remain incompletely documented, but there is a growing concern that these sorts of events might be increasing in frequency as a consequence of regional environmental changes.



Small projectile embedded in woody debris, Lago Cabrera


Remnants of buildings, destroyed in February 1965, on the shores of Lago Cabrera.


View across Lago Cabrera to the apex of Volcan Yate.


Further Reading

S Doocy et al., 2013, The Human Impact of Volcanoes: a Historical Review of Events 1900-2009 and Systematic Literature Review, PLOS Current Disasters,  2013 Apr 16.  Link to database

P Iribarren Anacona et al., 2015, Hazardous processes and events from glacier and permafrost areas: lessons from the Chilean and Argentinian Andes, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 40, 2 – 21

M Stoffel & Huggel C., 2012, Effects of climate change on mass movements in mountain environments. Progress in Physical Geography 36, 421–439

SFL Watt, DM Pyle, JA Naranjo and TA Mather, 2009, Landslide and tsunami hazard at Yate volcano, Chile, as an example of edifice destruction on strike-slip fault zones, Bulletin of Volcanology 71, 559-574

C Witham, 2005, Volcanic disasters and incidents: a new database. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 148, 191-233.

Blog post on the ‘Tragedy of Lake Cabrera, Hornopiren, 19 February 1965’ (in Spanish)

Video (in Spanish) ‘La historia del lago Cabrera

The fate of volcanic ash in the environment

The fate of volcanic ash in the environment

Over the past few years, we have been working to piece together the record of major post-glacial volcanic eruptions in southern Chile that have occurred over the past 18,000 years. This work started off with a search for volcanic ash layers that were preserved in road cuttings, or cliff faces other accessible geological locations in the region. Since then it has expanded to include the search for pumice and ash layers (or, more generically, ‘tephra’) in peat bogs and lake core sediments.

Sampling a peat bog in southern Chile.

Seb Watt sampling a peat bog in southern Chile.

By using the chemical compositions of the volcanic glass from each eruption to ‘fingerprint’ the deposits, we can now start to develop a framework in time and space of when volcanoes erupted, where they left deposits, and how large those eruptions were.

Depositional environments for volcanic ash in southern Chile, from Fontijn et al. (2014).

Depositional environments for volcanic ash in southern Chile, from Fontijn et al. (2014).

As well as looking at the deposits of past eruptions, which we can find in these cores and cuttings, recent eruptions in the region have also given us some new information on how the ash ends up where it does after an eruption.


Pale coloured band of volcanic ash at 44-46 cm depth in a peat core sample, Cuesta Moraga, Chile.

One of the fascinating stories that is starting to emerge from this work is just how patchy the preservation record can be – even for moderate to large explosive eruptions. In a really nice piece of work which has just been published, Sebastien Bertrand and collaborators looked at how volcanic ash and pumice ended up in the nearby lake Puyhue, after the 2011 eruptions of the volcano Puyehue – Cordon Caulle.

In this case, the dispersal of the ash clouds during the explosive phases of the eruption were very well constrained. As with most eruptions in this region, winds blew most of the ash clouds to the East, across Argentina, and there was no major phase of the eruption that deposited pumice and ash into lake Puyehue, to the West of the volcano. Instead, the thick deposits of ash and pumice that ended up in this lake – up to ten cm thick in places – must have been transported there by fluvial processes. Rainfall during and after the eruption would have helped to remobilise freshly fallen pumice and ash from the upper reaches of the watershed. This tephra would then have been washed downstream, and into the lake, where lake currents at different water depths then helped to redistribute the tephra across the different parts of the lake system.

Cartoon from  Bertrand et al. (2014) showing the fate of pumice and ash from the 2011 eruptions of Puyehue - Cordon Caulle, Chile

Cartoon from Bertrand et al. (2014) showing the fate of pumice and ash from the 2011 eruptions of Puyehue – Cordon Caulle, Chile

This study provides a really nice example of the complexities of trying to piece together the deposits from ancient eruptions from the sparse environmental records that are eventually preserved. In the lake Puyehue example, the sediments accumulating at teh bottom of the lake will be an excellent archive for the deposits – since they will eventually be buried and preserved. But since the deposits are entirely reworked, their characteristics in terms of both grainsize and thickness could be quite misleading, unless they are recognised as ‘secondary deposits’. Since volcanologists usually rely on pieceing together the areas affected by tephra deposition from the few locations where the deposits are both preserved, and then accessible to later discovery, and then use these data to work out how big the eruption was and which way the winds were blowing at the time, this new work will make us all have to think a little bit harder about our interpretations in the future.


S Bertrand, R Daga, R Bedert, K Fontijn, 2014, Deposition of the 2011-2012 Cordon Caulle tephra (Chile, 40 S) in lake sediments: implications for tephrochronology and volcanology, Journal of Geophysical Research (Earth Surface), in press.

K Fontijn et al., 2014, Late Quaternary tephrostratigraphy of southern Chile and Argentina, Quaternary Science Reviews, 89, 70-84.   doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.02.007  [Open Access]



Doctoral Training in Environmental Research in the UK

View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissan ce Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

It is now a year since the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced the results of its first competition for ‘Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP)’, and just a few weeks since each of the 15 funded DTPs welcomed their first cohorts of doctoral students. In this time, the training landscape for PhD (or DPhil) students across the environmental sciences has changed radically.

Since we are approaching the annual round of applications for doctoral study, this post offers a short summary and perspective on ‘how to apply for doctoral study‘ which should be relevant across the UK, and for most students looking for projects that will fall under NERC’s broad ‘environmental science’ remit.

Scholarships for Doctoral Training

Through the 15 funded DTPs, NERC now support a minimum of 240 full-time-equivalent scholarships each year for research students working towards a PhD/DPhil. These 240 scholarships have been allocated to the DTPs following the 2013 competition, and broadly they will provide full funding (stipend, plus fees, plus a contribution towards research costs) for the 3.5 – 4 years of the graduate training course. Details will differ from centre to centre, but the summary rules are the same:

– if you are a UK resident then you should be eligible for a full award;

– if you are not a UK resident, but are from the EU then you should be eligible for a fees-only award, and will to find some other sources of funding to pay for living costs. All universities will have scholarship packages for this purpose, so do ask!

– if you are an international student, from outside the EU, then the NERC rules are clear that you cannot be funded by a NERC training grant. However, the quality of the UK research base relies on attracting an exceptional pool of talented graduate students from around the world – and all universities will have competitive scholarship packages to support graduate study in the UK.

In addition to these 240 studentships, NERC also support a number of Centres for Doctoral Training, and some stand-alone industrial ‘CASE’ studentships.

What is Doctoral Training?

The fifteen Doctoral Training Partnerships all offer tailored training in research and related skills, but the details of the training offered (both in terms of what is offered, what is required, and the timing of the training courses) will be different from one DTP to the next. All DTPs share the ambition of providing a programme of activities that will help students as they initiate, develop and complete their research projects, and embark on their careers – whether in science, or beyond. All of the DTPs are also partnerships – with ambitions to engage in research and related activities with partner organisations from outside the Higher Education sector.

By the same token, the DTPs all have different mechanisms in place to match up potential students with research topics, and supervisors: some will advertise lists of approved topics from the outset, while others may have no formal project lists but simply encourage applicants to apply for broad research areas of interest; or to work with particular reserchers, or research groups. My advice – don’t be passive, but make contact with the DTPs and potential supervisors, and start up a conversation well before making an application. Some DTPs may well have open days in the lead up to the closing date for applications; others may be happy for applicants to make informal arrangements to visit.

What next?

Think about what you are interested in working on for a research degree -and not just the topic area, but perhaps also what sort of project. Laboratory based? Computational? Field based? Here you need to be able to take advice: choose a topic area that will sustain your interest, but try not to be too swayed by your (positive or negative) experience of research projects so far. Give some thought to ‘why?’ you want to do a PhD or DPhil – it will be a 3 –  4 year journey that you are embarking on, so why not think about your roadworthiness before setting off?.  Think about whether the topic area seems to be ‘important’ enough to devote a large fraction of your life so far.. and why you think the problem is important enough to work on. Open ended ‘voyages of discovery’ can look very attractive at the beginning, particularly if they are tied to exotic fieldwork in a remote location, but your perspective might be very different three years in, when you are trying to work out what was the scientific rationale behind the work you have done. From the perspective of an examiner, it is surprisingly common to find that a student has worked out the ‘really obvious thing to have done’ only during the final stages of writing up the thesis, by which time there is no time or resource left.

Take advice from current PhD students, and from other researchers  in your own institution, to help to inform your choices of where to apply. Most importantly, keep your mind open to new opportunities. You may already  be specialised in one part of a discipline, but the new DTP training structures may well offer you opportunities to move into quite new areas.  Be open to opportunities in unfamiliar places: you may well believe that you are already in the best place for X (and you may be right), but don’t imagine that there aren’t excellent projects with great research groups in unexpected places – there are!

Then, once you have decided to apply, give your academic referees advance notice of your plans – and make sure that you don’t pass on your own application deadlines to them!  Don’t expect the application and assessment processes to be the same from one institution to the next (though they are likely to be fairly similar), and give yourself enough time to do as good a job as you can of the application.

After that – good luck! It is a competitive field out there, but every DTP is on the lookout for research students with great potential. If you are fortunate enough to be made a formal offer, don’t feel obliged to accept it on the spot – particularly if you have other interviews on the horizon – and do ask for an extension if you feel that you are being asked to make a decision too quickly.



I am the academic lead of the Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research.


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