GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment?

GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Anja Schmidt, an interdisciplinary researcher at the University of Cambridge who draws from atmospheric science, climate modelling, and volcanology to better understand the environmental impact of volcanic eruptions. She is also the winner of a 2018 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. You can find her on twitter at @volcanofile. 

Thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I was born and raised in Leipzig, Germany. I started my career completing an apprenticeship as an IT system engineer with the engineering company Siemens. I then decided to combine my interests in geology and IT by studying geology and palaeontology (with minors in Computing/IT and Geophysics) at the University of Leipzig in Germany. As part of my degree programme, I also studied at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment as an exchange student. I liked studying there so much I ended up returning to Leeds for a PhD.

My PhD on the atmospheric and environmental impacts of tropospheric volcanic aerosol again combined my interests in computing and volcanology, although I had to educate myself in atmospheric physics and chemistry, which wasn’t easy to begin with. However, I was embedded in a diverse,   supportive research group with excellent supervision, which eased the transition from being a geologist to becoming a cross between an atmospheric scientist and a volcanologist.

Initially, being neither one nor the other made me nervous. My supervisors and mentors all had rather straightforward career paths, whereas I was thought of as an atmospheric scientist when I presented my research in front of volcanologists and as a volcanologist when I presented to atmospheric scientists.

After my PhD, I spent just under 2 years at one post-doc before securing an independent research fellowship at the University of Leeds. The first year of total independence and responsibility as principle investigator was very challenging, but after a while I began to appreciate the benefits of the situation. I also really started to embrace the fact that I would always sit between the disciplines. I spent my summers in the United States at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, helping them to build up their capability to simulate volcanic eruptions in their climate model. These research visits had a major impact on my career as they generated a lot of new research ideas, opened up opportunities and strengthened my network of collaborators greatly.

I considered myself settled when, shortly before the end of my fellowship, a lectureship came up. It had the word ‘interdisciplinary’ in its title and I simply couldn’t resist. Since September 2017, I have been an interdisciplinary lecturer at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

At this year’s General Assembly, you will receive an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists for your work on the environmental impacts of volcanic eruptions. What brought you to study this particular field?

I have always been fascinated by volcanic eruptions, but my first active volcano viewing wasn’t until college, where I had to chance to travel to Stromboli, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. While studying at the University of Leipzig, I used every opportunity to join field trips to volcanoes. I ended up spending 10 weeks in Naples, Italy to work with Giovanni Chiodini, a researcher from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, and his team on CO2 degassing from soils at the Solfatara volcano. Later on I was awarded a scholarship from the University of Leeds, which allowed me to delve deeper into the subject, although I ended up learning as much about atmospheric science and computer modelling as about volcanology.

Anja in front of the 2010 Fimmvörðuháls eruption in Iceland. Fimmvörðuháls was the pre-cursor eruption to Eyjafjallajökull. Credit: Anja Schmidt.

My PhD work focused on Icelandic volcanism and its potential effects on the atmosphere as well as society. In 2010, during the 3rd year of my PhD studies, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland. While an eruption like this and its impacts did not really come as a surprise to a volcanologist, I personally considered it a game-changer for my career. I had an opportunity to witness the pre-cursor eruption in Iceland and present my research. Within a matter of months, interest in my work increased. I even started to advise UK government officials on the risks and hazards of volcanic eruptions in Iceland.

In August 2014, an effusive eruption started at the Holuhraun lava field in Iceland. To this date, analysing field measurements and satellite data of the site and modelling simulations keeps me busy. Many of my senior colleagues told me that there is one event or eruption that defined their careers; for me that’s the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption.

At the General Assembly you also plan to talk about your work on volcanic sulphur emissions and how these emissions can alter our atmosphere as well as potentially affect human health in Europe. Could you tell us a little more about this research?

On average, there is one volcanic eruption every three to five years in Iceland. The geological record in Iceland also reveals that sulphur-rich and long-lasting volcanic eruptions, similar to Iceland’s Laki eruption in 1783-1784, occur once every 200 to 500 years. Sulphur dioxide and sulphate particles produced by volcanic eruptions can have detrimental effects on air quality and human health. Historical records from the 1780s imply that the Laki eruption caused severe environmental stress and contributed to spikes in mortality rates far beyond the shores of Iceland. While these long-lasting eruptions occur much less frequently than more typical short-duration explosive eruptions (like Grímsvötn 2011), they are classified as ‘high-impact’ events.

I was always interested in investigating how a similar magnitude eruption like Laki’s would affect modern society. By combining a global aerosol microphysics model with volcanological datasets and epidemiological evidence, I led a cross-disciplinary study to quantify the impact that a future Laki-type eruption would have on air quality and human health in Europe today.

Our work suggests that such an eruption could significantly degrade air quality over Europe for up to 12 months, effectively doubling the concentrations of small-sized airborne particles in the atmosphere during the first three months of the eruption. Drawing from the epidemiological literature on human response to air pollution, I showed that up to 140,000 cardiopulmonary fatalities could occur across Europe due to such an eruption, a figure that exceeds the annual mortality from seasonal influenza in Europe.

In January 2012, this discovery was used by the UK government as contributing evidence for including large-magnitude effusive Icelandic eruptions to the UK National Risk Register. This will help to mitigate the societal impacts of future eruptions through contingency planning.

Anja and her colleague Evgenia Ilyinskaya from the University of Leeds carrying out measurements during the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland. Credit: Njáll Fannar Reynisson.

Since then, we have done more work on smaller-magnitude effusive eruptions such as the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland, showing that this eruption resulted in short-lived volcanic air pollution episodes across central and northern Europe and longer-lasting and more complex pollution episodes in Iceland itself.

Something that you’ve touched on throughout this interview are the challenges of ‘sitting between the disciplines.’ From your experience, what has helped you address these issues throughout your career?

Indeed, it is often challenging to sit between the disciplines, but it can also be very rewarding. It helps to ignore boundaries between disciplines. I also tend to read a lot and very widely to get an idea of key concepts and issues in specific fields. In addition, I think collaboration and a willingness to challenge yourself are key if you want to make progress and break traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Anja, thank you so much for speaking to us about your research and career path. Before I let you go, what advice do you have for aspiring scientists? 

Be curious and never hesitate to ask a lot questions, no matter how ‘stupid’ or basic they may seem to you. The latter is particularly true when it comes to cross-disciplinary collaboration and work.  I also didn’t always follow the conventional route most people would advise you to take to achieve something. Never be afraid to take a chance or work with some level of risk.

I also have two or three close mentors that I can approach whenever I require some advice or feedback. No matter what career stage you are at, I think it almost always helps to get an outsider’s perspective and insight not only when there are problems.

Finally, never forget to have fun. Some of my best pieces of work were done when I was surrounded by collaborators that are really fun to be with and work with!

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer.


Ilyinskaya, E., et al.: Understanding the environmental impacts of large fissure eruptions: Aerosol and gas emissions from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption (Iceland), Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 472, 309-322, 2017

Schmidt, A., et al.: Satellite detection, long-range transport, and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014–2015 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland)Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres12097399757, 2015

Schmidt, et al.: Excess mortality in Europe following a future Laki-style Icelandic eruption, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 15710-15715, 2011

Imaggeo on Mondays: Chilean relics of Earth’s past

Imaggeo on Mondays: Chilean relics of Earth’s past

As Earth’s environment changes, it leaves behind clues used by scientists to paint portraits of the past: scorched timber, water-weathered shores, hardened lava flows. Chile’s Conguillío National Park is teeming with these kind of geologic artifacts; some are only a few years old while others have existed for more than 30 million years. The photographer Anita Di Chiara, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK, describes how she analyses ancient magnetic field records to learn about Earth’s changing crust.

Llaima Volcano, within the Conguillío National Park in Chile, is in the background of this image with its typical double-hump shape. The lake is called Lago Verde and the trunks sticking out are likely remnants from one of the many seasonal fires that have left their mark on this area (the last one was in 2015).

The lake sits on pyroclastic deposits that erupted from the Llaima Volcano. On these deposits, on the side of the lake, you can even track the geologic record of seasonal lake level changes, as the layers shown here mark the old (higher) level of the lake during heavy winter rains.

The lake also overlaps the Liquiñe-Ofqui Fault, which runs about 1000 kilometers along the North Patagonian Andes. The fault has been responsible for both volcanic and seismic activity in the region since the Oligocene (around 30 million years ago).

I was there as field assistant for Catalina Hernandez Moreno, a geoscientist at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, studying ancient magnetic field records imprinted on rocks. We examined the rocks’ magnetised minerals (aligned like a compass needle to the north pole) as a way to measure how fragmented blocks of the Earth’s crust have rotated over time along the fault.

From this fieldwork we were able to examine palaeomagnetic rotation patterns from 98 Oligocene-Pleistocene volcanic sites. Even more, we concluded that the lava flows from the Llaima Volcano’s 1958 eruption would be a suitable site for studying the evolution of the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area within the South Atlantic Ocean where the Earth’s magnetic field is mysteriously weaker than expected.

By Anita Di Chiara, a research technician at the Lancaster Environment Centre in the UK 


Hernandez-Moreno, C., Speranza, F., & Di Chiara, A.: Understanding kinematics of intra-arc transcurrent deformation: Paleomagnetic evidence from the Liquiñe-Ofqui fault zone (Chile, 38-41°S), Tectonics,, 2014.

Hernandez-Moreno, C., Speranza, F., & Di Chiara, A.: Paleomagnetic rotation pattern of the southern Chile fore-arc sliver (38°S-42°S): A new tool to evaluate plate locking along subduction zones. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 121(2),, 2016.

Di Chiara, A., Moncinhatto, T., Hernandez Moreno, C., Pavón-Carrasco, F. J., & Trindade, R. I. F.: Paleomagnetic study of an historical lava flow from the Llaima volcano, Chile. Journal of South American Earth Sciences, 77,, 2017.


Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submittheir photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

In a departure from the usual posts we feature on the blog, today Conor Purcell (a freelance science writer) brings you a thought provoking science fiction piece. Grab a drink and dive into this geology inspired adventure!

“It’s typical geology for a rocky planet” K reported. “Captured beneath the ocean at its northern pole, the core is a mix of metamorphic and sedimentary rock, with sand and fossilized organisms of the non-intelligent form. Nothing unusual.”

“We should use our new systems for this analysis,” It thought to itself. “Best to begin with a rocky planet.” K was the collective thinking entity of its group, a unified consortium of representatives now located across interstellar space: their task to find intelligent life beyond itself.

Here, on the orbiting cube, lying lengthways in front of K, and secured within the hold of the onboard core analyser, was a long cylindrical section – a core – of rock and mud which had been excavated from the planet below. K was now beginning the routine inspection performed on each of the cores acquired across the surveyed planets.

“Inspect all elements and produce time-series of environmental parameters relevant for the planet” K commanded itself.

It was then that something unusual triggered a notification in its Thought Centre – something it had never experienced. “What is this?” it asked.

For millennia, K had been searching for evidence of intelligent life on exoplanets beyond its own host star. In earlier times ground based receivers had been constructed and used to scour the endless black sky, and although life had been discovered to exist almost everywhere, without exception it took the form of mindless cellular or multicellular organisms. No trace of another Type 1 civilization had ever been found. Even as K’s technology advanced, observing and measuring the atmospheres of millions of remote planets to seek out the signatures of machine and biological life, and now even visiting those remote worlds, no sign of intelligence had yet been discovered.

What now caught the attention of K’s Thought Centre was a narrow section of fine material which appeared to have been laid down in a remarkably short period of time, during just twenty solar orbits. “This geology is unique,” K thought.

“On a planet that contains layers stacked typically over tens of thousands or millions of years, what kind of mechanism could produce such a pattern?” it asked itself. “A rapid fluvial event could produce something like this” it responded. “But not exactly: the material here is far too fine to be explained by known terrestrial, oceanic or atmospheric forces in the universe,” it thought. K could not explain it.

Far below the orbiting cube on which the analysis was being performed, over extensive distances from the poles to the equatorial belt, the K machines proceeded to core their way across the planet. For a rocky sphere of this size, two hundred cores would be drilled and sampled. The complete process would take a little over one solar orbit.

“What do we think about this anomaly?” K asked itself. “We should compute an age model for the section.”

“The section in question is relatively young, just 2.167 million solar orbits in age” it calculated. “It is wedged at the intersection between two geological epochs, marked by a large (25 degrees Kelvin) and incredibly rapid (300 years) temperature increase across the transition.”

K next extracted a sample from each of the section’s annually laid sediments and instructed itself to begin the weighing of trace elements. Chemical analysis of the ratios of isotopes would spell out a varying signal across time, detailing past temperatures and planetary ice volume. This kind of varying palaeoclimate history had been discovered on planets throughout the galaxy. It was ubiquitous.

But, amazingly, unlike the millions of geological cores previously processed, this short section presented no ordinary signal: the pattern generated by the weight of these trace elements was encrypted.

K had not seen anything like it before and inside its Thought Centre an alert was raised: no signal in the known universe had ever been found encrypted.

“Perform an analysis on the encryption, decipher, and display results,” K commanded.

“The signal has been encrypted using a very basic cypher, and can be unravelled easily.”

The deciphering took just microseconds, and right there and then the signal was laid bare, changing K’s understanding of the universe forever.

After millennia of exploration, believing it was the lone thinking entity in the universe, here was evidence conveying the existence of another intelligence, a message sublimely detailed in the universal language of mathematics. It read:

‘This was once an inhabited place which we called Earth.’

By Conor Purcell Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at

Life after geoscience

Life after geoscience

After spending 13 years (give or take) at school you are faced with a tough decision: what to study at University (if anything at all, the academic path may well not be for you)? You sift through a bunch of university prospectuses and try to plan your future. Of course, lots of things can change, prior to, during and after you finish your studies. Nevertheless, there is no harm in starting to plan early, while at the same time being open to new opportunities and avenues as and when they come your way. In this post, Sam Illingworth, Lecturer of Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, explores some career choices open to those who chose to study the geosciences at undergraduate level.

It’s that time of year again when undergraduate students are either returning to University, or starting their courses for the very first time. All across Europe there will be tens of thousands of young geoscientists asking themselves the same nagging question: have I made the right choice here?

For many of us, our experiences at University help to shape us into being our future selves. We make strong friendships, experience the highs and lows of living away from home or in a big city for the first time, and we ultimately get our first taste of independent learning. For some this is enough to convince them that they have found their calling, that following on from their undergraduate degree they want to specialise further by taking an additional postgraduate qualification. But for others, this is simply a step too far; they enjoyed their learning experience but now they want to go and put this into practice. So what exactly can you do with a geosciences degree?

A quick job search for the word ‘geosciences’ on a careers website revealed a rather long list of opportunities, which included the following:

  • Exploration geophysicist
  • Software developer
  • Reservoir geologist
  • Mine engineer
  • Earthquake catastrophe model developer
  • Geoscientist

Whilst some of these jobs are fairly specialised (e.g. reservoir geologist), other such as ‘geoscientist’ are more general positions, which are looking to utilise the specialist skillsets that you have developed during your undergraduate training. And let’s face it, if you enjoyed learning about geosciences at university, some of these jobs sound extremely interesting; who wouldn’t want to tell people that they were an earthquake catastrophe model developer?

A map of deviations in gravity from a perfectly smooth, idealized Earth.  The gravity model is created with data from NASA's GRACE mission. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Texas Center for Space Research)

A map of deviations in gravity from a perfectly smooth, idealized Earth. The gravity model is created with data from NASA’s GRACE mission. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Texas Center for Space Research)

According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and the Office for National Statistics, the skills shortages in the science and engineering sector are about twice what they are in other areas. In addition to this, people working in this sector tend to earn significantly more than the national salary, and whilst these statistics are for the UK, it is a similar story across most of Europe. What this means is that whilst your degree will not guarantee you a job, you are more likely to be employed than people from other non-scientific backgrounds, and that when you do find a job, the chances are that you will be earning a reasonably healthy salary.

But what if you want to move on, and despite enjoying the course at the time, upon graduating you never want to see another rock, look at another planet, or hear the word fluvial ever again; what hope for you then? Well, the good news is that the key skills that you acquired during your geoscience training are still extremely valuable across a variety of different sectors; you just need to think about how to market yourself effectively. Most workforces will value your analytical and problem solving skills, whilst your practical and fieldwork experience demonstrate that you have effective research and planning skills. Similarly group work exercises demonstrate that you have excellent interaction and liaison skills, whilst your dissertation is a perfect exemplar of good time management, organisation and communication.

Asking yourself if you made the right decision in choosing to study geosciences at university is a perfectly natural question, but if you enjoy the course material and the learning experience then stick at it, as no matter what you decide to do in the future your degree will open a lot of doors, as well as quite a few windows, and a couple of mine shafts to boot.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer in Science Communication, Manchester Metropolitan University.