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Tracking and measuring volcanic plumes using drones

Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (SEE), Dr Tjarda Roberts (CNRS Orleans), Dr Melissa Pfeffer (Icelandic Meteorological Office), Dr Barbara Brooks (NCAS), Dr Anja Schmidt (SEE)

Project partner(s): Icelandic Meteorological Office (CASE), CNRS Orleans

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Volcanic plumes are very complex mixtures of volcanic and atmospheric gases and small aerosol particles, such as sulphate. Knowing the aerosol size distributions and its chemical composition (e.g. Ilyinskaya et al. 2010) are key requirements for assessing the environmental, climatic and human health impacts of volcanic emissions (e.g. Schmidt et al. 2011). The aim of this PhD project is to develop a new type of drone capable of measuring aerosol (mass and size distributions) in plumes from active volcanoes in order to better understand how volcanic plumes form and disperse in the atmosphere.

At many volcanoes the plume is very difficult to sample due to safety issues (Fig 1). Using drones is therefore an exciting new field of research, which is opening up important scientific opportunities. Airborne measurements allow several things that a ground-based set up does not, for example, measurements very close to the degassing vent (Fig 2), and vertical and longitudinal profiling of the plume. The longitudinal profiles are of particular interest as they can give new insights into how the plume composition changes between the volcanic vent and locations further downwind, in particular inhabited areas. Drone work on volcanic plumes has so far focussed predominantly on gas measurements (e.g. Fig 2), with relatively few attempts to measure aerosol particles.

Figure 1: The 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland was the largest gas-and-aerosol-rich eruption in Europe since the devastating Laki eruption in 1783-1784. In spite of its long duration, only a handful of aerosol measurements were collected due to the difficulties with reaching the plume: the hot plume was lofted high over ground, and the crater rim was inaccessible due to the flowing lava. The photo shows measurements being done using a helicopter hovering over the active vent. Photo: E Ilyinskaya

Aim of this project

In this project the student will equip a drone (fixed wing and/or copter) with a lightweight aerosol sensor, for example LOAC (Vignelles et al. 2016) or Alphasense. The project will involve testing of both the aerosol sensor and the drone. As part of the CASE studentship, the student will spend at least 3 months in Iceland at the Icelandic Met Office (the national volcano observatory). Actively degassing volcanoes in other parts of the world, such as Etna in Italy or Masaya in Nicaragua, will also be visited.

Figure 2: Drone testing at a volcanic geothermal area in Iceland. The drone is used to carry gas sensors into a high-temperature gas fumarole. Photo: Icelandic Meteorological Office

While aerosol measurements will be the primary focus of this work, the drone will also carry sensors for volcanic gases (e.g. SO2, CO2, H2S)  as well as sensors for atmospheric temperature, pressure and humidity (which allows measurement of H2O). Combining aerosol and gas sensors on one drone platform allows to quantify the fractionation between the gas and aerosol phase inside the volcanic plume.

The field data from the drone will be interpreted in terms of both volcano and atmospheric processes. The aim will be to produce a highly novel plume ‘cross-section’ map of aerosol size distribution (which is not possible through ground-based or balloon-borne measurements). Combined with wind speed measurements, these observations can be used to estimate the aerosol emission flux, which is a key source parameter for dispersion models. The plume will also be tracked by the drone as it travels away from the volcanic vent, and the results will be interpreted in order to understand how plume composition changes with time, including the very important process of conversion of SO2 gas to sulphate particles.

The student will also have the opportunity to set-up and run dispersion and aerosol microphysics models to calculate the plume dispersion and predict the atmospheric and climatic effects of the volcanic emissions (e.g. Schmidt et al., 2011).



The main objective of this project is to develop and evaluate a new instrument and methods that will allow measurements inside volcanic plumes that are otherwise inaccessible, and to track plumes as they move away from the volcanic vent. The project will be subdivided into four main parts:

  1. Development of a suitable drone platform for carrying the aerosol and gas sensors, including selection and testing of sensors
  2. Drone testing. First tests will be done in volcanic geothermal areas in Iceland at non-eruptive gas fumaroles. Fieldtrips will also be undertaken to other active volcanoes:  in Iceland if an eruption occurs; in Sicily (e.g. Etna, Vulcano, Stromboli), and Nicaragua (e.g. Masaya).
  3. Data analysis. Comparison of the 3D observations made by the drone to more ‘traditional’ methods (e.g. direct sampling, remote sensing). Use of relevant models (e.g. dispersion and aerosol microphysics) to simulate the field data.
  4. Interpretation of the field data and modelling results to understand how the volcanic plume(s) move and change in time and space. Assess the implications for environmental impacts.

Potential for high impact outcome

Volcanic gas and aerosol pollution can cause huge impact on the environment and climate and this hazard has recently been included in the UK National Risk Register. However, there are still many uncertainties about the ‘source term’, i.e. what the emissions of volcanoes are actually like, and how they spread in the atmosphere. New and innovative measurements of volcanic plumes are needed to address these uncertainties.

This project directly addresses some of these unknown factors as it will develop a new ability to rapidly probe different parts of the volcanic plume and thereby provide new insights into how the volcanic plume behaves and evolves with time. This new technology is anticipated to become widely used, and to yield new insights into emissions and atmospheric dispersion of volcanic aerosol. When combined with atmospheric modelling, it will be possible to assess health hazards and climatic effects arising from volcanic plumes (e.g. Schmidt et al. 2011).

The facilities at the University of Leeds/NCAS, CNRS-LPC2E (Orleans, France) and the Icelandic Met Office (Reykjavik, Iceland) are very well equipped to carry out the proposed work on drone development. The Icelandic Met Office has already done successful work on equipping drones for gas measurements (Fig 2) and will provide an environment where drones can be flight-tested with little air space restrictions, which is vital for this project.

We anticipate the project generating at least three peer-reviewed papers (3* and 4*), as well as the above-mentioned new technology to become widely used to monitor volcanic plumes.


The student will be based at the University of Leeds but will spend at least three months at the Icelandic Met Office (Reykjavik, Iceland) as part of the CASE partnership. They will also make research visits to CNRS-LPC2E (Orleans, France) several times during the project. The student is expected to undertake extensive fieldwork for flight-testing the drone - primarily in Iceland, but also at other actively degassing volcanoes worldwide.

The student will greatly benefit from the CASE partnership with the Icelandic Met Office as they will be experiencing the practical applications of volcanological research. Drone flight-testing can be done in Iceland with relatively little air control restrictions, which is essential for this project. In addition, at the Icelandic Met Office the student will have the opportunity to take part in real-time volcano monitoring and multiple fieldtrips to Iceland’s active volcanoes.

The project supervisors are a wide-ranging team of experts assembled to fully support the interdisciplinary nature of this project. E. Ilyinskaya (IGT Leeds) is an expert in volcanic aerosol chemistry and in-situ sampling techniques with an extensive field experience from volcanoes worldwide, in particular in Iceland. T. Roberts (CNRS-LPC2E Orleans) is an expert in in-situ real-time volcanic gas and aerosol sensing and volcano plume chemistry processing.  M. Pfeffer (IMO, Iceland) is the leading scientist for volcanic gas monitoring, including drone work, in Iceland. B. Brooks (NCAS Leeds) will provide leading expertise in development of drones for near-volcano measurements and draw on the extensive experience within NCAS in field measurement and the operation of drones in extreme conditions. A. Schmidt (ICAS Leeds) is an expert in volcanic gas and aerosol modelling using a wide range of numerical models.

Specialist training will be provided in: (i) Drone engineering, and flight controls; (ii) Techniques of gas and aerosol measurements (optical and direct sampling); (iii) Field work at active volcanic sites; (iv) complex 4D (3D space plus time) analysis of the real-time measurement data; (v) numerical modelling and data analysis. The student will become a member of the Volcanology group at Leeds. For the numerical modelling, further training and support will be provided by the newly founded Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Modelling and the student has the opportunity to spend time at the UK Met Office who are responsible for operational forecasting of volcanic plumes in the UK air space.

The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops put on by the Faculty that include an extensive range of training workshops in numerical modelling, through to managing your degree, to preparing for your viva (  


  • Ilyinskaya, E., C. Oppenheimer, T.A. Mather, R.S. Martin and P.R. Kyle (2010), Size-resolved chemical composition of aerosol emitted by Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems, 11, Q03017, doi:10.1029/2009GC002855

  • Schmidt, A. et al. (2011): Excess mortality in Europe following a future Laki-style Icelandic eruption, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 38, 15710-15715.

  • Vignelles D, Roberts TJ, Carboni E, Ilyinskaya E, Pfeffer M, Dagsson Waldhauserova P, Schmidt A, et al. (2016) Balloon-borne measurement of the aerosol size distribution from an Icelandic flood basalt eruption, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 453, 252-259

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Chemistry
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