From vent to exposed communities: understanding the spread and impacts of toxic metal pollution from large volcanic eruptions. CASE studentship


Over 29 million people live within 10 km of active volcanoes, and ~800 million within 100 km. Within this distance people can be exposed to multiple volcanic hazards. Individual volcanoes can emit as much toxic pollutants as total anthropogenic activities in large industrialised countries (Fig 1). Depending on the meteorological conditions, expose populated areas to highly variable and potentially dangerous concentrations.

Figure 1: Emission rates of environmentally reactive metals from individual volcanoes vs total anthropogenic activities (Ilyinskaya et al., 2018 and references within).

The 2014-2015 eruption of Holuhraun in Iceland was the largest fissure eruption in over 200 years. Each day, the eruption emitted as much sulphur dioxide gas (SO2) as total anthropogenic activities in China (50-100 thousand tonnes). This is 3 times higher than all of the EU states combined. It caused repeated air pollution episodes in Iceland and other European countries (Gíslason et al., 2015; Schmidt et al., 2015).

Previous research on the spread and intensity of volcanic pollution has focussed predominantly on SO2. In comparison, the understanding of other environmentally important components in volcanic emissions, such as metals, is in its infancy. This PhD project will be one of the first research studies to look at the atmospheric dispersion and lifetime of these important pollutants.

You will work with several unique datasets to assess the spread and impact of environmentally reactive metals from Holuhraun eruption in Iceland and other European countries. The project will involve lab work to analyse samples collected before, during, and after the eruption; fieldwork to collect additional samples; and GIS and modelling work. The fieldwork may be in Iceland (Fig 2) and/or at comparable volcanoes in other countries. Potential sites include Hawaii, Central America, South Pacific islands, or Reunion – the choice will be based on the activity of the volcanoes near the start of the PhD. You will get the opportunity to spend time at Iceland’s volcano observatory (Icelandic Meteorological Office, IMO). The results of the project will contribute to environmental hazard assessments of volcanic eruptions impacting Europe and other parts of the world.


Many volcanic hazards are well recognized and receive a huge amount of media interest, such as ash-rich explosions which can ground air traffic, or pyroclastic flows which can bury cities. However, there is also a wide-spread environmental pollution posed by volcanic emissions of gas and aerosol particle matter (PM). This hazard is poorly researched and typically absent from risk management strategies. In addition, the contribution of volcanoes to the overall air and environmental pollution in populated areas has not been adequately assessed. The associated mortality which this pollution may be causing is not included in estimates of deaths caused by volcanic activity.

Even when volcanoes are not erupting ash or lava, their emissions of gas and aerosol particles can last for years or decades and contain various pollutants such as sulphur dioxide gas, fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5) and environmentally reactive metals such as cadmium, copper and lead (Figure 1). Recent research has shown that volcanoes have a specific metal ‘fingerprint’. This fingerprint can be used to distinguish them from other sources of pollution, such as road traffic, power plants, or wild fires.

The environmental fate of volcanic metal emissions is poorly known – we don’t know how far from the volcano they spread or how long they persist in the environment. Our new results (Ilyinskaya et al., 2018) suggest that different chemical components in volcanic emissions may have very variable dispersion patterns and may ‘live’ in the atmosphere for different amounts of time. Understanding these differences is very important for assessing the volcanic hazards because the environmental reactivity and toxicity of the different chemical components is highly variable.

Figure 2: Sampling volcanic emissions onboard a coastguard helicopter during Holuhraun eruption in Iceland 2015.

Hypotheses and objectives


How does the abundance and composition of metals in a volcanic plume change from source to the far-field? You will analyse a large and detailed time series of samples. These samples have already been collected, before, during and after the Holuhraun eruption. This reduces the risk of not having samples to work with due to the covid pandemic.


Do large Icelandic eruptions spread detectable metal pollution across Europe? You will evaluate how far from source the volcanic metal pollution from Holuhraun can be detected. To do this, you will be able to use an open-source database on metals in air pollution from across Europe.


Is there a difference in environmental pressure and toxicity from volcanoes compared to other natural or anthropogenic sources?  You will compare the fingerprint chemical composition of volcanic emissions to other sources (e.g. traffic, wildfires, industry). You will then assess the contribution of volcanic emissions to overall air pollution in your case study locations. To do this, you will learn and use ‘source apportionment modelling’.


How many people are exposed to volcanic pollution? You will assess population exposure to different components in volcanic emissions in the case study locations. This will allow you to identify the more vulnerable parts of the populations (e.g. schools and hospitals). You may also choose to extend the exposure maps to grazing livestock which in some previous eruptions has been affected even more than people.

Description of work and training provided

You will be based at the University of Leeds and collaborate closely with the University of Birmingham and Imperial College, London for parts 2 and 3 of the project (more details below). You will also spend time at Iceland Met Office, the institute responsible for monitoring volcanic hazards in Iceland.

Holuhraun eruption in Iceland will be used as a case study in this project, as it caused the most significant volcanic air pollution episodes across Europe in over 200 years. In addition, you may collect new samples at analogous eruptions in Iceland or elsewhere. Note that the project does not rely on new fieldwork, as it is designed to work with already collected datasets. So if new fieldwork is not possible due to covid or other reasons, the project will still be fully successful. If fieldwork is possible, the exact location will be decided at the start of the PhD because volcanoes are very dynamic creatures!

The project will focus on 3 main parts:

Project part 1, years 1-2: Direct observations of volcanic emissions chemistry from source to far-field

In part 1, you will work with different sample sets. Most of these have already been collected (S1-S3).  You will be able to collect additional samples yourself (S4). You will process the samples in a laboratory at Leeds and analyse them for detailed chemical composition. To do this, you will be using ion chromatography and ICP-MS mass spectroscopy techniques.

Sample sets:

[S1] High-resolution sample time series (daily-means) of aerosol particle matter (PM), collected in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland (population ~200,000) by EAI.

[S2] Long-duration sample time series (monthly-means) of PM from a populated rural area in South Iceland, collected by IMO.

[S3] Time series of precipitation, collected by IMO from ~20 monitoring stations across Iceland.

[S4] New samples of aerosol and precipitation from an analogous eruption in Iceland or elsewhere to better understand the volcanic metals at source and in the far-field.

You will also work with the following datasets (D1-D3) which are from open-source databases and/or from previously published academic studies:

[D1] High-resolution time series of SO2 and PM2.5 concentrations from air quality stations around Iceland, collected by PP EAI.

[D2] European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) database of trace metals in PM sampled across Europe.

[D3] Previously published data on at-source PM composition collected during the Holuhraun eruption (for example, Ilyinskaya et al., 2017)

Project part 2, years 2-3: Assessing the contribution of volcanic emissions to the overall air pollution

In order to distinguish between volcanic and other sources of pollution in the far-field sites, you will learn to use ‘source apportionment’ modelling. These are mathematical models that use the chemical and physical characteristics of different pollutant sources to quantify their contribution to the overall pollution burdens at different sampling sites. Prof Francis Pope at the University of Birmingham will supervise this part of the project.

Project part 3, years 2-3: Population exposures to different components in volcanic emissions

You will combine your results from project parts 1 and 2, and learn to use advanced GIS to assess population exposure to the different pollutants in volcanic emissions. Population exposure maps will give information about the number of people exposed, as well as the identify the more sensitive groups of the population. This include, for example, socioeconomically deprived areas, schools, and hospitals. Dr Daniela Fecht at Imperial College, London will supervise this part.

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

You 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 the viva. (

Potential for high impact outcome

This project focuses on tackling the threat of air and environmental pollution by toxic metals, by (a) yielding a better knowledge of the atmospheric spread from a significant, but under-researched natural source, and (b) providing the first assessment of this volcanic hazard by producing population exposure maps.

You will be able to share the resulting population exposure maps stakeholders in Iceland and potentially in other European countries. The maps can be used to engage with policy-makers and inform the public. Local authorities will be able to use the results of the project for hazard and risk assessments for volcanic air pollution.

We anticipate the project generating at least three peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, as well as the non-academic impacts described above.

Supervisor team

The project supervisors are an interdisciplinary team of experts who have had productive collaborations in the past.

Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (University of Leeds)

Evgenia specialises in direct observations of volcanic aerosols and gases. She leads the interdisciplinary, international GCRF-funded projects UNRESP and UNRESP-OPS. These projects are building resilience to volcanic air pollution in Nicaragua. Evgenia led a NERC urgency grant on the Holuhraun eruption in Iceland 2014-2015 which discovered a previously unrecognised air pollution hazard posed by volcanic aerosols (Ilyinskaya et al., 2017). She has published 20+ peer-reviewed papers and led and/or contributed to 4 major reports on volcanic activity and hazard, including the 2015 UNISDR Global Assessment Report on volcanic risk.

Prof Francis Pope (University of Birmingham)

Francis is an expert on the causes and effects of atmospheric pollution with a focus on aerosols, including from volcanic sources (Ilyinskaya et al., 2017). He has provided policy directed research for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport Scotland, the Department for Transport, and the Department for International Development.

Dr Daniela Fecht (Imperial College London)

Daniela is a lecturer in geospatial health and head of the Environmental Exposure Group within the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. She works on the development and application of geographical approaches and methods for exposure assessment and environmental health analysis making use of advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS) methods.

Gerdur Stefansdottir (Icelandic Meteorological Office, IMO)

Gerdur is the Chief Manager of Environment and Natural assets. IMO are responsible for monitoring natural and/or environmental hazards in Iceland and provide information on volcanic plume dispersion to the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre for aviation hazard assessments. The institute is also in charge of monitoring and data delivery to the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) database. IMO will contribute previously collected samples, and participate in acquiring new ones. They will participate in supervising on the results analysis, reporting and write-up. IMO will also help to disseminate the results to local stakeholders, such as local authorities and the public.

Dr Jason Harvey (University of Leeds)

Jason is a lecturer in geochemistry. Jason will supervise on laboratory analyses of samples, including method development for trace element and isotope extraction.

 Applicant background

Applications are welcome from graduates in Natural, Environmental, & Physical Sciences, Computing, Maths & related degrees. The project will involve a significant amount of computing, including GIS. You have to be willing to learn to run numerical models on high-performance computing systems. This will allow you to analyse complex and large datasets using python or similar high-level programing languages.  You should be willing  to do outdoor fieldwork on active volcanoes and, if necessary, learn to drive (including 4×4).


Gíslason, S.R., Stefánsdóttir, G., Pfeffer, M.A., et al 2015. Environmental pressure from the 2014–15 eruption of Bárðarbunga volcano, Iceland. Geochem. Perspect. Lett. 84–93.

Ilyinskaya, E., Liu, E.J., Mason, E., Wieser, P., et al 2018. Size-resolved chemistry of volcanic aerosol from the 2018 Kīlauea Lower East Rift Zone eruption, traced from source to exposed communities. Presented at the AGU Fall Meeting.

Ilyinskaya, E., Schmidt, A., Mather, T.A., 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. 472, 309–322.

Schmidt, A., Leadbetter, S., Theys, N., et al 2015. Satellite detection, long-range transport and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014–15 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland). J. Geophys. Res. Atmospheres 2015JD023638.