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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.

References: 

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

GeoTalk: Stephanie Zihms, Early Career Scientist Representative

GeoTalk: Stephanie Zihms, Early Career Scientist Representative

In addition to the usual GeoTalk interviews, where we highlight the work and achievements of early career researchers, this month we’ll also introduce one of the Division early career scientist representatives (ECS). They are responsible for ensuring that the voice of EGU ECS membership is heard. From organising short courses during the General Assembly, through to running and attending regular ECS representative meetings, their tasks in this role are varied. Their role is entirely voluntary and they are all active members of their research community, so we’ll also be touching on their scientific work during the interview.

Today we are talking to Stephanie Zihms, ECS representative for the Earth Magnetism & Rock Physics (EMRP) Division and the incoming Union-level ECS representative. Interested in getting involved with EGU and its activities for early career scientists? Consider applying for one of the vacant representative positions

Before we get stuck in, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about yourself and your career?

Where to start, I’m originally from Germany but moved to the UK in 2005 for an year and ended up staying. I have had a varied career and would probably call myself a multidisciplinary geoscientist.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Earth Science from the University of Glasgow (2007), I worked for a geotechnical drilling company in Scotland as a geologist. However, I still had a drive to further my education, so following the economic downturn in 2008-2009, I started my PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering from University of Strathclyde. After my PhD, I left academia again to work for the British Geological Survey, where for 14 months I studied the impact of heat on bentonite for radioactive waste disposal. This wasn’t quite the right fit for me, and I left to go back to academia for a postdoc.

In January 2015 I joined Heriot-Watt University, originally for a postdoc position looking at CO2 bubble behaviour in flow conditions (definitely a ‘tide me over’ position). After 4 months I joined the Institute of Petroleum Engineering for a geomechanics postdoc – finally working with rocks again. Now I have a postdoc in the Heriot-Watt University Lyell Centre studying fracture flow. This postdoc is great since it combines my experience from my previous postdoc and my time at the British Geological Survey.

Outside of work I love running, and I am currently training for a half marathon. I started running again after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to better manage my mental health and increase my overall fitness.

Although we touch upon it in the introduction of this post: could you tell us what your role as ECS representative has involved and explain your new role as the Union-level ECS representative?

I was the first ECS representative for the EMRP Division and was kind of thrown in the deep end, but it was great to have some freedom to shape the role within the division. The biggest part is being the link between the division president and officers and the ECS community. I attend online meetings where all the ECS representatives exchange ideas, discuss issues and find solutions or support. For EMRP, I set up the division Twitter account and recruited some other ECS to help me run a Facebook page. Most divisions have a small team, which is a great way to get involved. At the 2017 General Assembly I organised an ECS dinner (open to all EMRP scientists) which went really well with over 40 scientists attending. We are planning to host a similar event at this year’s General Assembly.

As the Union-level ECS representative, I will be the link between the Union and the ECS via the division representatives. This is a very important role since it will be my job to represent the work the ECS representatives have done and present any changes the ECS representatives would like to see. Of course, I will have help from the new incoming Union-level representative Raffaele Albano, the EGU Outreach Committee, and you as the communication officer*.

I’m looking forward to working with you! So, why did you put yourself forward for these positions?

I volunteered for both roles because I think it’s important for ECS to have a say, get involved and have proper representation. We are the future of research and our voice should be counted. I am a big believer in peer-support and the ECS representatives provide this in a very positive way. It is also a great opportunity to get to know the insides of the EGU better and how it is all organised.

What can your ECS division members expect from the Earth Magnetism & Rock Physics Division in the 2018 General Assembly?

For the 2018 General Assembly we are planning an ECS dinner again (check your emails or our Facebook page for more information and updates). We will have representatives at the ECS Corner at the ice-breaker on Sunday evening, and I hope EMRP ECS will stop by to say ‘Hi!’ In addition to the official ‘Meet EGU’ booth with our division president, I’m planning a Meet & Greet in the ECS Lounge as well to provide another opportunity for ECS to introduce themselves, ask questions or get advice.

We are not planning any EMRP specific short courses this year but would be happy to help organise some for 2019. The short course programme at the EGU General Assembly is always great, and I highly encourage everyone to have a look at what’s offered.

Our division ECS team has four members, with one stepping up as the next EMRP division ECS representative. If anyone is interested in helping out but not sure about becoming a representative, consider joining your division ECS team. They will be grateful for the support.

What is your vision for the EGU ECS community and what do you hope to achieve as Union-level ECS representative in the time you hold the position?

I would like to see the ECS community more involved in organising sessions and shaping what the General Assembly looks like. We are running a short course on this year to accomplish these goals. I would also like to develop ways in which the ECS community could acknowledge established scientists that support ECS activities, but I would be interested in discussing just how to achieve this with the division ECS representatives.

How can those wanting to, get involved with the EGU?

There are lots of ways to get involved!

  1. See if your division is looking for an ECS representative and apply
  2. If the ECS representative position is taken, or if you’d rather not take on that role, ask if you can join the ECS team
  3. Fill in the surveys – this feedback is vital for us
  4. Attend the General Assembly ECS Forum (Thursday, 12 April at 12:15) and provide feedback
  5. Talk to your division ECS representative – either at one of the ECS events (ice-breaker, Networking & Careers Reception, Meet EGU) or you can shoot them an email

 

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

 

* The EGU communications officer is the ECS contact point at the EGU office.

GeoTalk: Maribel García-Ibáñez, Early Career Scientist Representative

GeoTalk: Maribel García-Ibáñez, Early Career Scientist Representative

In addition to the usual GeoTalk interviews, were we highlight the work and achievements of early career researchers, this month we’ll also introduce one of the (outgoing) Division early career scientist representatives (ECS). The representatives are responsible for ensuring that the voice of EGU ECS membership is heard. From organising short courses during the General Assembly, through to running division blogs and attending regular ECS representative meetings, their tasks in this role are varied.  Their work is entirely voluntary and they are all active members of their research community, so we’ll also be touching on their scientific work during the interview.

Today we are talking to Maribel García-Ibáñez, ECS representative for the Ocean Sciences (OS) Division. Maribel has been in post for over 18 months, but her term comes to an end at the 2018 General Assembly. If our conversation with her inspires you to get involved with EGU and its activities for early career scientists, then check out what vacancies are available.

Before we get stuck in, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about yourself and your career?

Hi! As you said, I am Maribel and I am the ECS representative for the OS Division. I come from Spain where I studied the degree of Marine Sciences and later I obtained a PhD in Chemical Oceanography. My research interests are water masses and ocean acidification, especially in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions. Nowadays, I am based in Norway, where I work as a Postdoc at Uni Research.

Although we touch upon it in the introduction of this post: what does your role as ECS representative involve?

Well, as you mentioned, our main role is to ensure communication between the EGU and their ECS. The way to approach it varies from one division to another. In the OS division, we try to be as active as possible in social media (you can find us on Facebook and Twitter) and we also organise some short courses during the General Assembly. I also communicate with the OS division President, Karen Heywood, to increase the ECS representation within the division. Finally, I participate in the regular Skype meetings with ECS representatives from the other divisions during which we discuss about how to increase the ECS representation in EGU.

Why did you put yourself forward for the role?

I attended the General Assembly the year before becoming an ECS representative and I loved its networking environment. However, I felt a bit lost in such a big conference and when I saw the vacancy I thought I could help other newcomers feel more comfortable and welcome.

What is your vision for the Ocean Sciences Division ECS community and what do you hope to achieve in the time you hold the position?

I think it is a diamond in the rough. I see a lot of potential in networking, but we still need a push to become a more active division in EGU. I must also say that I have already seen an improvement in this aspect during my years as ECS representative, which I hope will continue. My idea when I started as ECS representative for the OS division was to create an active group of ECS ready to push forward the division. However, it has been harder than I thought, but I am positive about the future.

What can your ECS Division members expect from the Ocean Sciences Division in the 2018 General Assembly?

We have 63 sessions and 3 co-organised short courses: “How to publish in the EGU journal Ocean Science”; “What are the key problems in Climate Science?”; and “Polar science career panel”. I encourage the ECS from the OS Division to attend the Division Meeting during the General Assembly to get to know the division activities and the current division officers. I also recommend participating in the Mentoring Programme to help newcomers to develop new connections (deadline: 31 January 2018) and active participate in the events especially designed for ECS, such as The Early Career Scientists’ Great Debate that next GA will deal with: Should early career scientists use time developing transferrable skills?; and the short course Academia is not the only route: exploring alternative career options for Earth scientists. And, please, stay tuned to the EGU-OS’s official social media (Facebook and Twitter) and the EGU’s official social media and the EGU website, in particular, the pages dedicated to ECSs, and subscribe to the mailing lists so you do not miss any future activities.

How can those wanting to, get involved with the EGU?

Simply check the online resources to get to know what is going on in EGU. All divisions have they arms open to new active members! If you are interested in getting involved in the OS Division, you can contact me via email or social media (Facebook and Twitter). You can also contact the President of Division, Karen Heywood. Also, in 2018, our division is searching for a new ECS representative. If you are interested in the position, apply as a candidate for the OS  ECS representative by contacting us through the contact points mentioned above.

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer