Researcher awarded £1m for magma-mapping

Dr Fiona Simpson has won a prestigious Independent Research Fellowship from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) . She will divide her time as a Fellow between the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment and the Department of Physics at Imperial.

She has been awarded £1,032,422 for a five-year project called ’Electromagnetic Array Research over a Tectonic Hotspot (EARTH)’.

If we can understand what drives eruptions, by mapping magma below Earth’s surface, we can be better prepared to deal with the consequences. Dr Fiona Simpson

The EARTH project will use a technique called magnetotellurics (MT) to produce new models of magma flows beneath Scotland, Iceland and Greenland.

As well as solving longstanding questions about the origins of Iceland’s volcanism, the data will also be used to assess the risks of solar storms on an energy cable proposed between Iceland the UK.

Dr Simpson’s findings will be used to supplement existing seismological data, helping governments and communities to plan for and mitigate events such as the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which grounded flights across Europe.

She said: "Hundreds of millions of people’s lives globally are impacted by volcanic activity. If we can understand what drives eruptions, by mapping magma below Earth’s surface, we can be better prepared to deal with the consequences."

Volcanic origins

Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge, a line of subsea volcanoes where magma is upwelling as two tectonic plates pull apart. However, Iceland is far larger than any other volcanic area on the ridge, leading scientists to hypothesise there is a plume of hot material from the mantle underlying the Icelandic ’hotspot’.

The source of this plume and its composition, however, are not well defined by current seismological (earthquake) data, and some argue the plume may not exist at all.

Recent seismological models suggest that the plume may rise from below Greenland, be deflected by topography at the underside of the North American tectonic plate towards Iceland, and extend below the plate as far as the British Isles.

To determine if this is the case, Dr Simpson will take new MT measurements in Scotland, Iceland and Greenland to characterise the mantle and the plume. MT uses natural electric and magnetic fields induced in the Earth by interactions between the solar wind (a stream of high-energy charged particles from the Sun) and Earth’s magnetosphere (a protective shield around the Earth maintained by Earth’s magnetic field) to characterise electrical conductivity as it varies in the deep Earth.

The combined seismological, MT and chemical data from lavas aims to unequivocally solve controversies about the nature of the Iceland hotspot that cannot be addressed using a single geophysical method.

Energy security

As well as providing more information about Iceland’s volcanic hotspot, the measurements will help determine the risk from space weather to a proposed 1000km high-voltage cable for transferring energy from Iceland to the UK. This new Atlantic Superconnection forms part of the UK’s net zero energy plans, by delivering sustainable, geothermally generated, low carbon energy from Iceland.

Extreme space weather events, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, can cause ’geomagnetic storms’ on Earth, which can induce dangerous currents in power transmission cables and result in blackouts.

How much current is induced in such cables depends on the electrical conductivity structure of the deep Earth - which Dr Simpson’s measurements will characterise for the area covered by the proposed cable. The data will allow estimates of electric fields during geomagnetic storms, worst-case-scenario space weather hazard maps, and the likelihood and severity of such events occurring, giving the energy industry a basis for contingency planning.

Commenting on the award of the fellowships, Professor Peter Liss, Interim Executive Chair of NERC, said: "I’d like to offer my congratulations to all those who have been awarded a fellowship this year. Environmental research advances our understanding of the planet and is the key to tackling and adapting to critical challenges such as climate change."

Top image: Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Credit: J. Helgason/Shutterstock