23 January 2018

Lancaster student wins a prize for his research project deciphering an unusual Icelandic tuya volcano which erupted through ice

Alastair Hodgetts has been fascinated by volcanoes and other natural hazards since he was at school.

“I like the fact you can travel a lot for field work meaning you can go to some really cool, exciting, remote places around the world to explore and learn more about the natural environment,” said Alastair.

“It is a science we are rapidly advancing our knowledge in, however there are lots of volcanoes which are potentially hazardous to many people but we don’t know a lot about them. So it’s applicable to the everyday life of people and their safety as well as being very interesting scientifically.”

There are only two universities in the UK where you can study volcanology  at masters level, and Alastair chose the Graduate School for the Environment at Lancaster University, because of the research interests of its staff.

His MSc in Volcanology and Geological Hazards included two taught volcanology field trips - a day in the nearby Lake District, looking at ancient volcanic geology, and a week studying Mount Etna in Sicily, to understand more recent volcanic processes and deposits - and when it came to choosing a subject for his dissertation, Alastair knew he wanted to spend more time in the field.

One of his lecturers, Dr Hugh Tuffen, suggested a project in South Iceland which he knew about via a collaborator, Dr Dave McGarvie, at the Open University. It involved a special kind of flat topped volcano called a tuya, which forms when there is an eruption under a thick ice sheet.

“Subglacial eruptions can be quite dangerous because of the vast amount of meltwater they can generate. So there is a growing interest in the nature of tuyas and other subglacial volcanic edifices” Alastair explains.

The tuya Alastair was studying, Þórólfsfell, was unusual.  “It is quite different from tuyas that have been studied before being asymmetrical, with a different architecture. That makes it interesting scientifically to the volcanology community as it provides a deeper insight into the geological and environmental processes that occur in glaciated regions.”

Alastair spent three weeks in Iceland carrying out geological mapping and making detailed observations, as well as  taking lava and ash samples, helped by a £1000 research grant from the Geological Society of London. He then returned to Lancaster to analyse his samples in the labs, trying to establish how the volcano had formed, and the style of its eruption.

The resulting dissertation scored 93% and won Alastair a Lancaster Environment Centre prize for the best masters dissertation in his year, which he got jointly with another student. Overall he gained a distinction in his degree.

“I really enjoyed my time at Lancaster. It was a really friendly environment, and I got to meet so many people doing different masters degrees as well as becoming part of the volcanology working group.”

Alastair has now started a PhD at the University of Birmingham, studying volcanic eruptions near to Mexico City.

“Lancaster supplied me with the skills to take on to the PhD. I’ll be looking at a lot of tephra (volcanic ash) and will hopefully learn significantly more about the past eruptions from several of the surrounding volcanoes to assess what may occur again in the future, so it is very similar to what the masters course set me up for, with field work and lab components.

Eventually Alastair would like to work as a volcanologist for a government agency or research organisation, applying his work to make the world a safer place.