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From vent to exposed communities: understanding the spread and impacts of toxic metal pollution from large volcanic eruptions

Project Description

Over 29 million people live within 10 km of active volcanoes, and ~800 million within 100 km where they can be exposed to multiple volcanic hazards. Individual volcanoes can emit as much toxic pollutants as total anthropogenic activities in large industrialised countries, and depending on the meteorological conditions, expose populated areas to highly variable and potentially dangerous concentrations. Previous research on the spread and intensity of volcanic pollution has focussed predominantly on sulphur dioxide gas (SO2). In comparison, the understanding of other environmentally important components in volcanic emissions, such as metals, is in its infancy, in spite of the importance of volcanoes as an emission source. This PhD project will be one of the first research studies to look at the atmospheric dispersion and lifetime of these important pollutants.

The 2014-2015 eruption of Holuhraun in Iceland was the largest fissure eruption in over 200 years and emitted daily as much SO2 as total anthropogenic activities in China, or 3 times higher than all of the EU states combined. It caused repeated air pollution episodes in Iceland and other European countries You will work with several unique datasets from Holuhraun to assess the spread and impact of environmentally reactive metals in Iceland and other European countries. The project will involve lab work to analyse samples collected before, during, and after the eruption; fieldwork to collect new samples; and GIS and modelling work. The fieldwork will be in Iceland and/or at comparable volcanoes in other countries (for example in Hawaii, Central America, South Pacific islands, or Reunion – the choice will be based on the activity of the volcanoes near the start of the PhD). You will get the opportunity to spend time at Iceland’s volcano observatory (Icelandic Meteorological Office).

If successful, the resulting population exposure maps will be shared with stakeholders in Iceland and other European countries and used to engage with policy-makers and inform the public. The results of the project may be used for hazard and risk assessments for volcanic air pollution by local authorities.

[1] How does the abundance and composition of metals in a volcanic plume change from source to the far-field? By using a detailed time series of samples collected before, during and after a large eruption, you will map the composition and abundance of volcanic metals at different distances from source

[2] Do large Icelandic eruptions spread detectable metal pollution across Europe? You will evaluate how far from source the volcanic metal pollution from Holuhraun can be detected using an open-source database on metals in air pollution from across Europe.

[3] Is there a difference in environmental pressure and toxicity from volcanoes compared to other natural or anthropogenic sources? You will compare the fingerprint chemical composition of volcanic emissions to other sources (e.g. traffic, wildfires, industry). Through source apportionment modelling, you will assess the contribution of volcanic emissions to overall air pollution in your case study locations.

[4] How many people are exposed to volcanic pollution? You will assess population exposure to different components in volcanic emissions in the case study locations; and identify the more sensitive parts of the populations (e.g. schools, hospitals) for chemical components which have been linked to negative health effects. Exposure maps may be extended to grazing livestock who are known to be affected potentially more than people.

You will be primarily based at the University of Leeds. You will work with samples in a laboratory at Leeds. You will also spend some time at the University of Birmingham and Imperial College, London to get proficiency in aerosol sources apportionment modelling and population exposure mapping, respectively. You will also spend time at the Iceland Met Office, the institute responsible for monitoring volcanic hazards in Iceland.

Holuhraun eruption in Iceland will be used as a case study in this project, as it caused the most significant volcanic air pollution episodes across Europe in over 200 years. In addition, new samples will be collected at analogues eruptions in Iceland or elsewhere (exact location will be decided at the start of the PhD because volcanoes are very dynamic creatures!).

Funding Notes

Funding is available to UK and EU citizens through Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) competition. This project is co-funded by the Iceland Met Office as a CASE partnership and includes a higher allowance than the standard DTP projects.


Ilyinskaya, E., Schmidt, A., Mather, T.A., Pope, F.D., Witham, C., Baxter, P., Jóhannsson, T., Pfeffer, M., Barsotti, S., Singh, A., Sanderson, P., Bergsson, B., McCormick Kilbride, B., Donovan, A., Peters, N., Oppenheimer, C., Edmonds, M., 2017. Understanding the environmental impacts of large fissure eruptions: Aerosol and gas emissions from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption (Iceland). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 472, 309–322.

Ilyinskaya, E., Liu, E.J., Mason, E., Wieser, P., Whitty, R., Edmonds, M., Mather, T.A., Nadeau, P.A., Elias, T., Kern, C., Schneider, D., Oppenheimer, C., 2018. Size-resolved chemistry of volcanic aerosol from the 2018 Kīlauea Lower East Rift Zone eruption, traced from source to exposed communities. Presented at the AGU Fall Meeting.

Schmidt, A., Leadbetter, S., Theys, N., Carboni, E., Witham, C.S., Stevenson, J.A., Birch, C.E., Thordarson, T., Turnock, S., Barsotti, S., Delaney, L., Feng, W., Grainger, R.G., Hort, M.C., Höskuldsson, Á., Ialongo, I., Ilyinskaya, E., Jóhannsson, T., Kenny, P., Mather, T.A., Richards, N.A.D., Shepherd, J., 2015. Satellite detection, long-range transport and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014–15 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland). J. Geophys. Res. Atmospheres 2015JD023638.

How good is research at University of Leeds in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 79.20

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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