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Unseen but not unfelt: building resilience to air pollution from volcanoes

Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (SEE), Dr Anja Schmidt (University of Cambridge), Dr Ralph Burton (NCAS), Dr Claire Witham (Met Office), Dr Wilfried Strauch (Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales (INETER), Nicaragua)

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The last decade has been inundated with reports of environmental disasters impacting the lives of billions of people around the world.  While news coverage of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires are always accompanied with spectacular images of destruction that emphasise the speed at which they strike, a myriad of slow and latent hazards have been left in the shadow of the public attention. One of those overshadowed and underestimated hazards is environmental pollution caused by persistent volcanic emissions (PVE). The aim of this PhD project is to increase our understanding of how PVE spreads and impacts the environment, and to optimise a forecasting model to help create a public advisory system for the local communities. The project will focus on Masaya volcano in Nicaragua and you will work in close collaboration with an ongoing interdisciplinary Global Challenges Research Fund project UNRESP. You will undertake fieldwork on active volcanoes in Nicaragua.


Even when volcanoes are not erupting ash or lava, their emissions can be extremely rich in acids (e.g. sulphur dioxide gas), fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5) and heavy metals, presenting a serious and persistent air pollution hazard (Ilyinskaya et al., 2017). PM2.5 pollution alone (from natural and anthropogenic sources) is estimated to cause over 3 million premature deaths per year, with 90% of these in the developing countries of the Global South (“WHO | Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health,” 2016). While PVE is a persistent hazard, it is not constant: monitoring PVE is vitally important as PVE burden varies over time and space based on weather and volcanic activity. Consequently, PVE air pollution can increase drastically and dangerously in certain areas at particular times: an event we call a PVE Crisis, or PVE(C).

Fig 1: Vegetation impacted by emissions from Masaya volcano is reduced from tropical cloud forest to yellowed scrubland. The visible blueish haze is characteristic of severe volcanic air pollution. Photo: E Ilyinskaya

The PVE, including the crisis events, are known to be harmful to health, for example causing increased long-term respiratory problems such as asthma (Tam et al., 2016). PVE also impact water and soil quality and plant health and therefore can cause severe damage to agriculture-dependent economies.

PVE is a chronic natural hazard potentially present in over 30 countries on the Official Development Assistance (ODA) list but absent from their mitigation strategies. Little is known about the interaction of PVE with anthropogenic air pollution and the resulting impacts on health and the environment. Masaya volcano in Nicaragua is a huge source of environmental pollution - its annual sulphur dioxide emissions in 2006 (Martin et al., 2010) matched those of the entire UK (DEFRA, 2016) but were released from a point source. Masaya’s PVE is estimated to impact on at least 50,000 people in the rural communities on a daily basis, and it is also periodically transported to the cities of Managua (pop. 2 million) and Masaya (pop. 150,000) where it mixes with anthropogenic air pollution.

The foundation phase of the project UNRESP (November 2016 – December 2017) worked on obtaining a better understanding of the physical aspects of PVE, and trialled techniques for PVE monitoring and forecasting. The foundation phase also identified ‘best practice’ ways of mitigating PVE using an interdisciplinary approach that included volcanology, environmental sciences, history, human geography, sociology and public health. UNRESP identified the need and desire for improved resilience in Nicaragua to PVE, and has now been funded for a follow-on phase to integrate volcanic air pollution in Nicaragua’s hazard monitoring system. The PhD project will contribute to this phase of the UNRESP project.

Aims and Objectives

You will work on analysing data from the newly installed air quality (AQ) network in communities near Masaya volcano, with the overall aim of quantifying the magnitude and extent of the volcanic pollution. In addition to the data from the automated AQ network, you will analyse the chemical composition of the PVE in the impacted areas. While Masaya will be used as a case study, the results will be applicable to manyop other volcanoes around the world.

Fig 2: PM2.5 air pollution levels in two communities in the vicinity of Masaya volcano, measured March – June 2017 during the UNRESP foundation phase. PM2.5 pollution fluctuates greatly on short time scales and reaches ‘High’ and ‘Very high’ levels on several occasions. The air pollution index (Low, Moderate, High and Very high) is that used in the UK and is shown here for reference only as no index exists for Nicaragua.

You will also learn to use the Numerical Atmospheric Dispersion Modelling Environment model (NAME) with the objective of optimising a forecast that can be used in Nicaragua for public advisories on high pollution levels. In order to achieve this objective, the modelled plume dispersion and behaviour will be compared to the direct observations from the AQ network similar to a recent study of the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland (Schmidt et al., 2015).  

There is currently a lack of high-resolution meteorological forecasting for Nicaragua so you will assess the performance of the NAME model using met data input generated from different sources.  You will get experience in using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model to generate met data, as it can produce very high-resolution data down to a city scale. This will allow a comparison between the outputs from NAME running on (a) Met Office data and (b) higher resolution WRF data.  This will be a novel integration of these two models.

In the later stage of the project there will be an opportunity to experiment with using the WRF as a dispersion model for Masaya, as has recently been done for Lake Nyos volcanic gas disaster 1986 (Burton et al., 2017), compare the output to that of NAME, and assess whether WRF can be used in operational forecasting for Masaya area.

There is also scope for extending the project into looking at the impacts of the PVE on the environment, agriculture, and public health – made possible by the interdisciplinarity of the UNRESP project team.

Last but not the least, there is scope for looking at the interaction between volcanic and anthropogenic air pollution in the cities of Nicaragua.

Potential for high impact outcome

This project focuses on tackling the threat of air pollution in Nicaragua, by (a) yielding a better knowledge of a poorly understood source of air pollution from persistently active volcanoes, and (b) building the capacity to forecast and therefore mitigate this chronic slow-onset hazard.

If successful, the forecasting model that you will optimise will be integrated in the operational procedures of the Nicaraguan natural hazards observatory, INETER, and used for issuing public advisories.  Nicaragua is well-suited for an efficient, cost-effective introduction of a system for a currently unmonitored hazard and will be able to benefit immediately from having this capability.

AQ monitoring positively impacts the development and welfare of the country by (i) Introducing the capacity to take appropriate measures against air pollution, in particular to protect the most vulnerable individuals, including people with respiratory and heart conditions, children and the elderly. This aids disease and disability prevention - hence, it is both a humanitarian and an economical imperative. (ii) Increasing the awareness on air pollution issues and enabling a more evidence-based approach to combating the impacts on health and environment. Quantitative evidence for unhealthy levels of air pollution from natural sources which can’t be directly reduced (e.g. volcanoes) could be used to prioritise the impacted communities to receive adaptations such as improved housing that is less permeable to outdoor pollution, and cleaner cooking facilities. This results in both better air quality and better living conditions.

We anticipate the project generating at least three peer-reviewed papers (3* and 4*), as well as the non-academic impacts described above.


The student will be based at the University of Leeds but will be expected to spend at least several weeks at the University of Cambridge working on the modelling part of the project under the supervision of Dr Anja Schmidt. They will also spend time at the Met Office in Exeter working on the NAME model with Dr Claire Witham the institute responsible for operational forecasting of volcanic plumes in the UK air space.

A key part of the project will be working in Nicaragua with the natural hazards observatory, INETER. The student will make approximately 2-3 working visits to INETER in Nicaragua and undertake fieldwork on Masaya volcano.

The student will greatly benefit from the collaboration with UNRESP project and its highly interdisciplinary team.

The project supervisors are a wide-ranging team of experts assembled to fully support the interdisciplinary nature of this project. Evgenia Ilyinskaya (IGT Leeds) leads the UNRESP project and is an expert in volcanic aerosol chemistry and in-situ sampling techniques with an extensive field experience from volcanoes in Nicaragua, Iceland, Antarctica, Hawaii, South America and Asia. She will supervise on the analysis of the direct observations of air quality data, fieldwork and direct sampling. Ralph Burton (NCAS Leeds) is an expert on WRF and atmospheric dispersion and will supervise the use of WRF and the related analysis. Anja Schmidt (University of Cambridge) is an expert in volcanic gas and aerosol modelling using a wide range of numerical models. She will supervise on the NAME model work and the comparison of the model output to the observational datasets. Claire Witham (UK Met Office) leads the Volcanic and Chemical Dispersion group in the Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality team and conducts research into improving the use of dispersion models for emergency response. She will supervise on the use of the NAME model and its applicability to be used operationally at Masaya. Wilfried Strauch (INETER) is an Advisor on Earth Sciences at the Executive Directorate of INETER and advisor for the Presidency of Nicaragua. He is the scientific leader of the development of the monitoring and Early Warning Systems on earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic phenomena, landslides in Nicaragua and the coordinator of the establishment of the Regional Tsunami Warning Center for Central America and the experimental Earthquake Early Warning System for Nicaragua and Central America. He will advise on the integration of the air quality forecasting model in INETER practices.

Specialist training will be provided in: (i) Techniques of gas and aerosol measurements and data analysis (optical and direct sampling); (iii) Field work at active volcanic sites; (iv) numerical modelling and data analysis. The student will become a member of the Volcanology group at Leeds.

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 (  

Applicant background

Applications are welcome from graduates in Natural & Physical Sciences, Computing, Maths & related degrees. The project will involve a significant amount of computing. The applicant must be willing to learn to run numerical models on high-performance computing systems, and to analyse complex and large datasets using python or similar high-level programing languages.  The applicant must be willing and able to do outdoor fieldwork on active volcanoes and spend time in Nicaragua. The applicant should be willing to learn to drive (including 4x4), and become proficient in Spanish, if not skilled in these areas already.


Burton, R.R., Dudhia, J., Gadian, A.M., Mobbs, S.D., 2017. The use of a numerical weather prediction model to simulate the release of a dense gas with an application to the Lake Nyos disaster of 1986. Meteorol. Appl. 24, 43–51. doi:10.1002/met.1603

DEFRA, 2016. Emissions of air pollutants in the UK, 1970 to 2015, Air quality and emissions statistics. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Ilyinskaya, E., Schmidt, et al, 2017. Understanding the environmental impacts of large fissure eruptions: Aerosol and gas emissions from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption (Iceland). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett.,

Martin, R.S., et al, 2010. A total volatile inventory for Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua. J Geophys Res 115, B09215.

Schmidt, A., et al., 2015. Satellite detection, long-range transport, and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014–2015 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland). J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 120, doi:10.1002/2015JD023638.

Tam, E., et al. 2016. Volcanic air pollution over the Island of Hawai’i: Emissions, dispersal, and composition. Association with respiratory symptoms and lung function in Hawai’i Island school children. Environ. Int. 92–93, 543–552. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2016.03.025

WHO | Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health [WWW Document], 2016. . WHO. URL (accessed 11.16.16).

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