There’s (volcanic) dust in the archives

There’s (volcanic) dust in the archives

There’s not much that beats the thrill of discovery.. particularly when it turns up in your own backyard.  This summer, I have been on the hunt for records and reports of the 1902 eruptions of St Vincent, a lush volcanic island in the Eastern Caribbean. There are indeed many reports from this eruption, carefully documented in official records from the time. But, more surprisingly, there are samples – and many of them in the UK: packets, vials and boxes of ash; chunks of rock and more, in museum collections and archives in both the Natural History Museum, and at the British Geological Survey. Here is just a snapshot of some of the incredible samples from the British Geological Survey Archives.

From the BGS archives

Four vials of volcanic ash – all collected on Barbados. The smallest vial is of ash from the 1812 eruption of St Vincent. The three other vials are samples of ash that fell on Barbados during eruptions between May 1902 and March 1903.

Along with the samples are the original envelopes in which they were sent, and handwritten notes documenting the sample: priceless tools, when you want to look back at an eruption that took place over 100 years ago.

1902 Barbados ash

1902 Barbados ash sample sent to Horace Woodward, who was in charge of the Geological Survey’s office in Jermyn Street, London, at that time – which included the Museum of Practical Geology. Memo reads ‘Dust from Mt Soufriere St Vincent, collected on the deck of the SS ‘Statia’ lying at Barbados, 90 miles distant, travelling against a strong S E wind and covering everything to the depth of 5 inches. 1903′.

Some of these samples are timed and dated, and can be linked to particular phases of the eruption. Here is one example – of the ash that fell during the opening stages of the eruption on Barbados.

First hour

‘Volcanic dust collected at Barbados during the night May 7-8 1902. This spec. fell during the first hour’. Collected by WG Freeman, a botanist at the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies in Barbados.

Other samples can be used to map the distribution of ash and coarser samples that fell across St Vincent – here’s an example of a ‘gravel’ grade sample from Rosebank on St Vincent.

1902 ash

1902 tephra sample collected on St Vincent by  Henry Powell, Curator of the Botanic Station on St Vincent. ‘Sample of volcanic sand which fell at Rosebank (Leeward) on night of 3rd and morning of 4th Sept. 1902’

Among the most amazing discoveries, are examples of damage to economically valuable plants – this one, a sample of Breadfruit leaf that was damaged during the latter stages of the eruption in March 1903.


‘A leaf of the Bread Fruit Tree (Artocarpus incisa) gathered in St Vincent about 12 miles from the Soufriere and showing perforation caused by volcanic stones etc.’ Collected by WG Freeman in 1903.

Together, these sorts of samples will allow us to go back and investigate what was actually happening during the eruption, in a way that is rarely possible, even for modern events.

Links – read more about the eruptions of St Vincent on the London Volcano blog.

Summer Reading – H is for Hawk

Much of my time is consumed with reading, but it is almost always for a purpose: essays, assignments, proposals, drafts of papers, re-drafts of papers, papers for classes, for review..  This almost always means reading fast, with a goal: to measure, assess, hone, distil, critique and rewrite.  Often, it means hacking through tangled and cumbersome layers of scientific prose, to reveal the central narrative.

Then, for in a few days in midsummer, I get the chance to rediscover reading for pleasure: immersion in a book that grabs hold of your imagination and translates you to another place and another time. This year, my summer reading has got off to a cracking start with ‘H is for Hawk’.

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, alongside TH White's Goshawk.

Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, alongside TH White’s ‘The Goshawk’


‘H is for Hawk’, written by Helen Macdonald and published by Jonathan Cape, is a dizzying, dazzling read that defies its rather sober classification (‘Nature Writing/Biography’). The book weaves together a deeply personal story of grief and loss, with the rediscovery of life lived through the training of a young goshawk. In places, the staccato text crunches like the twigs strewn across a forest floor; in others, it soars like the circling hawk, magnificent, alert to the slightest movements below. It contains some wonderful writing on nature, capturing the very essence of the countryside in just a few words, alongside some moving reflections on bereavement and the way that death changes in a moment the lives of the living, and our relationships with what was present and is now past. In parallel, and wrapped up closely with the training of her young goshawk, Helen Macdonald explores the life and writing of TH White, a teacher and writer of Arthurian novels who wrote of his own struggle to train a goshawk in the 1930’s.  The result is a book that works on several levels, and would reward re-reading: a beautiful and captivating read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, published by Jonathan Cape, 2014. ISBN 9780224097000

The Goshawk by T.H. White. Reprinted 2007. ISBN 9781590172490

Update – in November 2014, Helen Macdonald was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for ‘the best non fiction book published in the UK’ for H is for Hawk.


Friday Field Photo – St Vincent, 1902

Roseau Dry River, St Vincent, 1902. Photo by Tempest Anderson, from Volcanic Studies.

Roseau Dry River, St Vincent, 1902. Photo by Tempest Anderson, published in his book  Volcanic Studies in Many Lands (1903).

Today’s field photo is by Tempest Anderson, of the ‘Roseau Dry River flowing with Boiling Mud’, a picture taken in the aftermath of the May 1902 eruptions of the Soufrière of St Vincent.  The full published caption explains the origins of this boiling mud – a phenomenon we now call a lahar:

This is a small stream in the Wallibu Basin. When the water undermines the banks and the hot ashes fall into the river, the stream is often dammed up, and the giving way of the obstruction is associated with a great discharge of boiling mud. In one of our ascents of the Soufriere, we had crossed the Rozeau Dry River without difficulty in the morning when the weather was fine, but heavy rain had fallen before our return in the afternoon, and the river was full of boiling mud, coming in gushes, as shown in the picture. After some trouble our men cut down two trees which had been killed by the eruptions, and made a bridge by which we crossed. The banks show the characteristic erosion by the rain rills.’

 Lahars are a very common feature at volcanoes, and they may often continue to be triggered by strong rainfall events for months or years after the eruptive activity has ceased.

 Tempest Anderson was an opthalmologist by profession, and also an inveterate traveller and photographer. He accompanied  John Flett to the Caribbean to document the eruptions on St Vincent and Martinique, in 1902, and a selection of his photographs can be found on the website of the Yorkshire Museum. The Soufrière of St Vincent is the centrepiece of the London Volcano project, which runs from 9-13 June.

Further Reading

Anderson and Flett’s Report on the Eruptions of the Soufriere, in St Vincent, in 1902..  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, A 200, 353-553 (1903)

Anderson, T., Volcanic Studies in Many Lands, John Murray, 1903.

How NOT to write to an editor

Over on the Nature Methods blogs site, there are some interesting posts with advice for authors on how to prepare cover letters, rebuttal letters, appeal letters and the like.

Here’s an example of ‘how NOT to write to an editor‘, based on a recent experience of mine. I shall let the author remain anonymous, but my hunch is that this is not an isolated example of this sort of behaviour, and I’d be interested to hear of any similar experiences.

The background.

A while ago, I declined to send for review a paper which I was handling as editor. The paper was submitted as a Review Article but, as I explained to the author, the manuscript was not ready to be considered for publication since it was pretty much only a review of their own work, without proper reference to current work in the wider field. I suggested to the author that this would be something to address, and returned my decision through the usual journal manuscript-handling route. The author subsequently responded to the entire editorial body of the journal, before escalating their grievances further, and for this reason I regard their correspondence as public. Here is what happened next..

Response 1 from the author [edited].

I appreciate your efforts to provide a rather detailed explanation of the basis for your decision to decline publication of my manuscript. I would .. like to respond to some of your comments as I believe such a response might be helpful to you.  I am the individual responsible for demonstrating the feasibility of this [hypothesis] and I have made almost all of the developments. That is simply a matter of historical fact. Those with the capability should have tried to refute the idea and, if unable to do so, the idea should be cited. When a malevolent, but influential, coterie decides to ignore a specific development, it places that coterie, and those who subscribe to that behavior, at risk. The risk is not being able to progress in science.  You have no legitimate basis to expect [me] to cite or debate “recent work on the nature of [X]” as virtually all of the published work .. is based upon [an idea for which] there is no independent corroborating evidence.

One does not progress in science by making models based upon assumptions, but rather by discovering fundamental quantitative relationships.  Science is all about telling the truth. To say that I have failed to [cite recent work] is not correct, which makes me wonder about your underlying motivation for declining publication of this work.  Sometimes it seems as if the geoscience community, especially Americans and more recently Europeans, try to avoid any mention of science that disagrees with their pet models. I have seen that behavior repeated over and over. In declining publication of the submitted manuscript, you aid and abet that behavior.

Perhaps you are unaware that science progresses, not by arraying seemingly agreeing evidence, but by discovering inherent failures. To a large extent the geoscience community is playing at science, making nonsense models based upon assumptions, suppressing mention of real scientific advances, and patting each other on the back.  Sadly, your behavior seems to doom the journal to be an organ of mediocrity. If you are unable to be a real scientist, why play at science?

Since  this response didn’t actually appeal the decision, I left it at that.

Two weeks later, I received the following message from the author, copied to several senior staff in my University.

Subject: Allegation of Misconduct and Academic Malfeasance..

[Over the years] most of my work has been intentionally ignored, subjected to misrepresentation, and often unwarrantedly suppressed, while the geoscience community wastes vast amounts of money making models based upon arbitrary assumptions in lieu of making discoveries. The matter at hand is about just such an incidence of unwarranted science suppression justified solely by false statements.

Evidence is presented below to support the allegation that Pyle (1) aided and abetted a concerted effort to conceal from the scientific community, Government science-funding officials, and the general public, certain specified scientific advances, published in world-class journals, and (2) made a series of false statements to justify (1). One consequence of said alleged actions is to cheat those individuals and institutions, including taxpayers, whose monies support scientific research in areas adversely affected by said concealment. In the broader context, said allegations of unwarranted science suppression stand in contradiction to principles of academic integrity that should be the minimum expectation. [The] rejection decision without legitimate basis resembles and appears to become part of concerted efforts to suppress, conceal and misrepresent [my] published work…  This is a pattern of activity which, I submit, has the consequence of defrauding those entities that fund scientific research. It is a pattern of activity that I believe should be investigated by authorities.

 I believe that it would be wrong either to ignore or to whitewash the present matter. I propose that .. Professor Pyle might consider making a concerted effort to counter said unwarranted ignoring, misrepresenting, and attempts at suppression of my work. For example, he might submit a Theme Issue proposal [to a journal on this topic]. He might write a review article for [a mainstream] journal.  He [might] also organize a special session on the subject for [an international] meeting.  Moreover, Professor Pyle might benefit through attaining a deeper understanding of geoscience and how to make important scientific discoveries.

I leave my readers to come to their own conclusions, but I’d like to make three points:

1 – in most journals, the role of the editor *is* to make judgements about what to publish, and what not to publish. There is nothing malevolent about this – there is whole world of journals out there, in a competitive market place and authors are free to shop around to find the best place for their work.

2 – journals all have formal mechanisms for replying to editors, and asking for decisions to be reconsidered. The author made no attempt to explore any of these avenues before embarking on a completely irrelevant path of escalation.

3 – if you do wish to engage an editor, then perhaps best not to start off  by being patronising; and certainly better not to engage in tactics that could be interpreted as harrassment, bullying or threatening behaviour.  If people are ignoring your work, perhaps it’s not their fault, but yours?

In any case, these protests about suppression of ideas are  fatuous: at the time of submission, the paper was already available to read in ArXiv; and the day after receiving my decision, the author submitted a version of the paper to another journal, where it has since been published.

Thermal imaging of volcanic eruption plumes

Timeseries images from thermal imaging camera of two contrasting explosion plumes at Volcan Colima, Mexico. Image by Erica Webb, and published in her paper, Webb et al., 2014.

Timeseries images from thermal imaging camera of two contrasting explosion plumes at Volcán de Colima, Mexico. Image by Erica Webb, and published recently in her paper in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

Thermal imaging using infra-red cameras is now a widely used tool in the monitoring and analysis of volcanic explosions, and this pair of time-series snapshots of two short-lived ‘Vulcanian‘ explosions at Volcán de Colima, Mexico, shows one example of why. In each panel, times (in seconds) are times since the start of the explosion sequence;  and the temperature scales (vertical colour bar) show the raw temperatures, without any atmospheric corrections. Images collected using a Jenoptic VarioCAM, from the Protección Civil de Jalisco observatory located beneath the summit of Nevado de Colima, Mexico. 

Further Reading

A Harris, 2013, Thermal remote sensing of active volcanoes, a users manual. Cambridge University Press, 736pp. ISBN 9780521859455

E Webb et al., 2014, Thermal imaging and analysis of short-lived Vulcanian explosions at Volcán de Colima, Mexico, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 278-279, 132-145.

The destruction of St Pierre, Martinique: 8 May, 1902

May 8th marks the anniversary of one of the worst volcanic disasters on record: the destruction of St Pierre, Martinique, in 1902, at the climax of the eruption of Mont Pelée. Below are a snapshot of images from one of the contemporary accounts of the disaster, ‘The volcano’s deadly work‘, written by Charles Morris in 1902. This eruption followed just one day after a similarly destructive eruption of the nearby Soufrière of St Vincent.

photo 2

Original caption ‘The only photograph taken of the volcanic outbreak of Mt Pelee, May 8, 1902, during the height of the eruption, a scene as grand as it was appalling’. This shows ash clouds rising off the flanks of the volcano, presumably associated with the emplacement of the dense, hot pyroclastic ‘nuee ardentes’ that accompanied the eruption to devastating effect.

photo 4

Original caption ‘Interior of a steamship at St Pierre, after the whirlwind of fire’. There was considerable damage incurred to boats that were afloat offshore from St Pierre, as the hot ash clouds travelled a short distance across the water, and engulfed them.

photo 1

Original caption ‘The clock that told the story. The ruins of the hospital of St Pierre and the clock with the hands pointing to 7.50, which indicated the time at which the city was overwhelmed’.

‘An amazing and portentous summer..’

Front piece from Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, first published in 1789.

Where the hermit hangs his straw-clad cell‘. Front piece from Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne‘, first published in 1789. White was one of a number of writers who described ‘the peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed .. in every part of Europe’ in the summer of 1783, following the eruption of Laki in Iceland. Image L0018513, Wellcome Library, London.

Book review: Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

In Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe take the reader on a dramatic tour of volcanic eruptions, death and destruction. At its heart is the story of the great 1783-1784 Laki fissure eruption, one of the most significant historical eruptions of Iceland, which belched 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and fifteen cubic kilometres of lava across southern Iceland in the space of nine awful months. Using Laki as the hook, the authors weave together first-hand accounts of the eruption and its many consequences, both locally and across the western world, with wider discussion of the present-day research on Laki and other eruptions.

The tale begins in Heimay, Iceland, in 1973, and the extraordinary example of a small eruption that literally reshaped an island community. The reader is then taken on a quick-fire tour of supervolcanoes; of classic eruptions and their human consequences, including Vesuvius, Tambora and Krakatau; to an exploration of some of the awful consequences of volcanic and evironmental crises in the 20th Century – from the tragedy of Lake Nyos and its carbonated lake, to the great smogs of 1950’s London.

The result is a compelling and readable account that is readily accessible and illuminating, and provides some fascinating examples of the intersections between volcanoes, humans and society.  Island on Fire succeeds as a ‘popular science’ text, covering complex aspects of science with a light touch, and without getting bogged down in detail. At the same time, the endnotes provide ample routes into the current literature for the inquisitive reader, and this will make it a useful source book for students of geography, Earth and environmental science.

Link to the book

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe, 2104, Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark, Profile Books, London. 224 pp. ISBN 978 178125 0044

Other links

Blog post by Alexandra Witze – Laki: the forgotten volcano

John Grattan and Mark Brayshaw, 1995, ‘An Amazing and Portentous Summer: Environmental and Social Responses in Britain to the 1783 Eruption of an Iceland Volcano’, The Geographical Journal, 161, 125-134

Gilbert White’s journal, The Natural History of Selborne


‘An amazing and portentous summer..’ is a slight misquotation from Gilbert White’s diary, first published in 1789.

Alexandra Witze kindly sent me a pre-publication copy of Island on Fire. 

Growth of the Kameni Islands Volcano, Santorini, Greece

Growth of the Kameni Islands Volcano, Santorini, Greece

Surface morphology of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, based on new submarine and surface mapping, published by Nomikou et al. (2014).

A new paper, published in the journal GeoResJ, reveals the intricate details of the volcanic Kameni islands that lie in the flooded caldera of Santorini, Greece. The Kameni islands started growing shortly after the explosive eruption that formed much of the present day caldera. For the past 3500 years or so these islands have grown in pulses, with each new eruption adding more material to the edifice. In this new paper, we have brought together high-resolution imagery of the seafloor with a digital elevation model of the parts of the islands that emerge above sealevel, and have used this to reconstruct the piecemeal growth of these islands from an analysis of their surface shape. Much more remains to be done, but the fascinating part of the work for me was the dawning recognition of just how little we know about the lifecycle of submarine volcanoes, and how much of the volcanic history of Santorini remains underwater, and essentially untouched.

Interpretation of the growth of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, over the past 2000 years.

Interpretation of the growth of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, over the past 2000 years. From Nomikou et al., 2014 (Supplementary dataset 2).


Funding for this project came from agencies in Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States. Submarine multibeam data were collected from R/V AEGAEO, of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR), in 2001 and 2006, with support from the National Science Foundation. Onshore data were collected during a Natural Environment Research Council Airborne Remote Sensing Facility (ARSF) campaign to the eastern Mediterranean in May 2012, with additional support from the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and COMET.


P Nomikou, MM Parks, D Papanikolaou, DM Pyle, TA Mather, S Carey, AB Watts, M Paulatto, ML Kalnins, I Livanos, K Bejelou, E Simou, I Perros, 2014, The emergence and growth of a submarine volcano: The Kameni islands, Santorini (Greece), GeoResJ 1–2, 8–18. [Open Access]


LiDAR data from the NERC ARSF Campaign EU-12-12-137 to Santorini on figshare

Related posts

The Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece

Santorini: a volcano in remission

Small volcanic eruptions and the global warming ‘pause’

Wellcome Library, London  Mount Vesuvius emitting a column of smoke after its eruption on 8 August 1779. Coloured etching by Pietro Fabris, 1779.

Wellcome Library, London
A small eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 8 August 1779, part of a sequence that culminated in a moderate eruption. Coloured etching by Pietro Fabris, 1779. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0

A new paper in Nature Geoscience by Santer and colleagues revisits the volcanic scenarios used in modern climate model simulations. The authors consider the effects of including a ‘more realistic’ model for the influence of small volcanic eruptions on the climate system over the past two decades. Of course, more realistic means more difficult.. and one of the long-standing and unresolved problems with small volcanic eruptions is that not only are they small, but their consequences are unpredictable. These complications arise, in part, from the fact that the part of the volcanic system that is responsible for the climate impact are the emitted gases (notably, sulphur dioxide or SO2), and not the volcanic ash. In real volcanoes, these two parameters don’t seem to be very well correlated – and it has been well known for some time that small but explosive eruptions of sulphur-rich magmas might well have a disproportionate effect on the climate system (see, for example, Rampino and Self, 1984; Miles et al., 2004). For this reason, models of volcano-climate impact that only use information on eruption size (as measured by the Volcanic Explosivity Index) will usually only be a poor approximation to reality. A better representation might instead be a volcanic sulphur dioxide climatology, building on the extensive work of the volcanic emissions satellite-remote sensing community since the first volcanic plume satellite measurements in 1979. The currently most up to date compilations of volcanic SO2 emissions since 1996 can be found in Carn et al., (2003) and McCormick et al., (2013).

Reading between the lines, it looks as though Santer and colleagues have come to a similar conclusion – finding that their model simulations get a little closer to observations of tropospheric temperature trends when they introduce a ‘realistic’ volcanic scenario to simulate the past 25 years of eruptions. What a pity that the volcanic dataset they relied on to line up particular eruptions with aerosol optical depth perturbations was patched together from secondary sources.  Clearly, as they suggest, more work is needed – but why not start by bringing the  climate modeling community and volcanologists together to find out what we each think that we know ?

Further reading.

Carn SA et al. 2003 Volcanic eruption detection by the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) instruments: a 22-year record of sulphur dioxide and ash emissions, In: Oppenheimer et al. (eds), Volcanic Degassing, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 213, 177-202.

McCormick BT et al. 2013 Volcano monitoring applications of the Ozone Monitoring Instrument, In: Pyle DM et al. (eds), Remote Sensing of Volcanoes and Volcanic ProcessesGeological Society, London, Special Publications 280, 1259-291.

Miles GM, Grainger RG and Highwood EJ 2004 The significance of volcanic eruption strength and frequency for climate Q. J. R. Met. Soc. 130 2361–76

Rampino MR and Self S 1984 Sulphur-rich volcanic eruptions and stratospheric aerosols, Nature 310, 677 – 679

Santer B et al, 2014, Volcanic contribution to decadal changes in tropospheric temperature Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2098

Related posts.

For more information on William Hamilton and Vesuvius, try this delightful blog post by Karen Meyer-Roux.