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Volcanic ash, soil development and resilience in a changing climate: a case study from Montserrat (BARCLAYUENV19ARIES)

Project Description

Scientific background

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a volcanic island in possession of some ash must become extremely fertile. Although 124 million hectares of the world’s land surface are volcanic ash soils, details of that transformation remain elusive, preventing effective adaptation to the changing pedosphere in the long and short term. This studentship will address this challenge via some action research on a volcanic island (Montserrat in the Caribbean). Volcanic eruptions replenish the earth through the provision of fresh parent material (proto-soil). Fresh deposits are often rich in unweathered minerals, high in nutrients and of a pH conducive to plant growth. We will use Montserrat as an evolving experiment: the goal will be to create new knowledge of the processes by which fresh volcanic deposits improve soil fertility. This can be applied during future volcanic eruptions on tropical soils.

This will be an end-to-end research project where the research findings be used and applied in Montserrat.

Research methodology

Research is structured into three phases:
(1) Farmers and citizen science: using local observations and volunteers to devise and help carry out relevant experiments.
(2) Detailed soil mapping and analysis in three control regions. At three study sites (based on pedogenic maturity) and an unaffected ‘control’ site detailed analysis will include (i) textural attributes of volcanic deposits and their influence on soil hydrology and erodability, and ii) mineralogy and nutrient availability in the volcanic deposits. The experiments with farmers on tephra addition, soil erodability and fertility will happen at one site.
(3) Soil Evaluation Framework (SEF). Combining outcomes from phases 1 and 2 above, the student will develop a new SEF for volcanic protosols and apply it to ascribe land capability/suitability for the whole island drawing on remote-sensing and experimental techniques developed at BGS.


UEA will provide analytical training in participatory methods, ICP OES and Elemental Analysis. BGS provides expertise in Mid-Infra Red Spectroscopy (MIRS) of soils and remote-sensing (hyperspectral) analysis. The whole team will provide training in experimental design and analysis.

Start Date: October 2019
Mode of Study: Full time or Part time
Studentship length: 3.5 years
Person Specification: Graduates in Environmental Sciences, Chemistry, Geology or related disciplines. Minimum entry requirement is UK 2:1.

Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Undertaking a PhD with ARIES will involve attendance at training events.
ARIES is committed to equality & diversity, and inclusion of students of any and all backgrounds. Applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses.
Usually only UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26th/27th February 2019.

Further information: View Website or contact us:


1. D.M. Lang. (1967) Soil and Land-use Surveys No. 22 Montserrat.
2. Peake, L.R., Reid, B.J., Tang, X. (2015) Quantifying the influence of biochar on the physical and hydrological properties of dissimilar soils. Geoderma 235, 182-190.
3. Poulidis, A.P, Phillips, J.C. Renfrew, I.A. Barclay, J. Hogg, A. Jenkins, S.F. Roberetson, R.E.A. Pyle, D.M. (2018) Meteorological Controls on Regional and Local Ash. Sci. Reports.
4. Stone, J., Barclay, J., Simmons, P., Cole, P.D. and Loughlin, S.C. Scientific and risk-reduction benefits of involving citizens in monitoring volcanic activity. (in revision) Volcanica.
5. SANTAMARIA-FERNANDEZ, R, CAVE, M R, and HILL, S J. 2006. Trace metal distribution in the Arosa estuary (N.W. Spain): The application of a recently developed sequential extraction procedure for metal partitioning. Analytica Chimica Acta, Vol. 557, 344-352.

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