1 July 2015

A volcanologist, who spent some of his formative years at Lancaster University, has won the 2015 Vetlesen Prize, considered the ‘Nobel Prize’ for earth sciences

In the mid 1970s, Professor Stephen Sparks spent four years as a post doctoral researcher at Lancaster, where he started publishing the ground breaking research that won him the prize.

Steve became one of the first people to apply maths and physics to the interpretation of volcanic deposits in the field, bringing volcanology into the modern era.  He has helped explain the multiple personalities of volcanoes, peaceful one minute and explosive the next, and so improved our understanding of volcanic hazards globally.

Elected to the Royal Society at the early age of 38, Steve is among the top-cited volcanologist ever and now works at the University of Bristol.

"A pivotal experience in my early career was my two years in the Environmental Science Department at Lancaster University between 1974 and 1976,” Steve says. “Here I began a long term collaboration with physicist and planetary scientist Lionel Wilson.

“Lionel acted as a mentor who helped me to develop skills in mathematical modelling of physical process.”

“Together we developed a series of volcanic models including the first models of volcanic plumes, modelling how pyroclastic flows - fast moving currents of hot gas and rock - are formed in explosive eruptions and models of explosive flows up volcanic conduits. We also developed the idea that magma mixing might trigger volcanic eruptions.” 

Professor Lionel Wilson is still attached to Lancaster Environment Centre, and remembers being impressed by Steve when he arrived, fresh from doing his PhD at Imperial College.

“I introduced Steve to some basic geophysics and showed him the basics of FORTRAN programming.  His very first computer programme ran to hundreds of lines of code and led to him writing the first of many seminal papers, in this case on the way the release of dissolved gases controls whether volcanic eruptions are explosive or not. 

“One day very early in his time with us I was showing Steve some results I had just obtained from a computer model of giant eruption clouds in the atmosphere.  I found that whereas some eruption plumes could rise to very great heights, others became unstable and collapsed from heights of less than 10 kilometres.

“Steve immediately recognised that this seemingly bizarre prediction could explain the origin of ignimbrites, one of the then enigmas of volcanology. Ignimbrites are volcanic sheets of rock, composed of ash and pumice at very high temperatures, that show every evidence of having travelled great distances - up to hundreds of kilometres - at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour.

“Of all the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers I have worked with, Steve stands out for this ability to pull together theoretical models and field observations.  This ability has been the hallmark of Steve Sparks' career, and he has been instrumental in passing on these skills to generations of graduate students.”

While at Lancaster, Steve also worked closely with Professor Harry Pinkerton on the flow of lava using Mount Etna as a field laboratory and in developing what turned out to be a key idea that loss of volcanic gas from magma causes it to solidify.

 The Vetlesen Prize was first awarded in 1959, and is considered the Nobel Prize of earth sciences. Since then recipients have included geologist J. Tuzo Wilson, a key force in developing the theory of plate tectonics; oceanographer Walter Munk, whose work has shaped our understanding of tides, waves, and ocean mixing; astronomer Jan Oort, who elucidated the architecture of galaxies and the outer solar system; geochemist Wallace Broecker, a father of modern climate science; and geologist Walter Alvarez, who connected the extinction of the dinosaurs to an asteroid impact.

Steve received $250,000 as well as a medal at the prize ceremony in New York. His previous awards include the Geological Society of London’s Wollaston Medal in 2011, the European Geosciences Union’s Arthur Holmes Medal in 2004 and the Geological Society of America’s Arthur Day Medal in 2000.