Planetary volcanoes: investigating patterns in volcanic dome behaviour on Mars and Earth

This exciting project aims to investigate volcanic dome behaviour on Mars and Earth using spacecraft data collected over the last decade alongside available surface data from Earth and from Martian surface missions. The novelty of the project lies in using the combination of remote sensing and surface data to interpret and model volcanic dome behaviour on the two planets to examine the similarities and differences between Martian and Terran volcanic dome structures. The project will look to establish which key parameters (such as gravity and material properties) primarily control dome growth behaviour across the different planetary environments with the aim of the scientific outcomes and technique development undertaken as part of the project being developed to be transferable to other planetary bodies.


Remote sensing of planets and moons across our solar system has provided us with a view of the topography and surface processes of these distant locations. For Mars, the available data is often both of a higher resolution and a far greater spatial extent than those we have for Earth, presenting unprecedented opportunities for observing and measuring and comparing the morphology of volcanic constructs across a range of solar system bodies.

Volcanic domes on planetary surfaces provide rich repositories of information. In comparing the morphology of these structures, formed under a range of environmental controls (e.g. gravity, surface temperature, rock properties), it could be possible to isolate the key controls of volcanic dome growth across different planetary environments and potentially estimate otherwise unknown properties, such as prior atmospheric conditions and sub-surface material properties.

Figure 1: Some examples of volcanic dome structures. a) Mount Unzen, Japan (image from CNES/Airbus – Google Earth) and b) in Terra Sirenum, Mars (CTX image provided by NASA).

This study will focus on analysing a range of volcanic dome structures from Mars and Earth (some examples in Figure 1) to investigate similarities and differences in dome growth mechanisms. The aim of the study will be to evaluate the relative importance key parameters (such as magma composition, surface temperature, pressure, gravity) have on controlling dome behaviour on the two planets. This work will include building 3D models of volcanic domes using multi-source observational data from Mars and Earth, such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s context camera (CTX), and including examples on Mars (e.g. Terra Sirenum, Southern Highlands (Broz et al., 2015) and western Arcadia Planitia (Farrand et al, 2020)) and Earth (e.g. Volcan de Colima (Walter et al, 2019). Compositional parameters will be determined using multiple sources including, but not limited to, multispectral imaging, surface samples and shallow subsurface structure deduced from gravity measurements and ground-penetrating radar data (e.g. SHARAD). Using these parameter values the study will run dome growth simulations, building on existing work at Leeds (Harnett at al., 2018 and 2020) that will test a range of possible eruptive and environmental conditions. To address quantification of model parameters, the study will integrate the observational 3D models of the morphological features of volcanic domes with numerical simulations of dome growth. Adjusting the model as necessary using an iterative approach to fit the observations will allow the key controlling parameters of volcanic dome growth on Mars and Earth to be constrained.


In this project, you will work within the Planetary Exploration Group (PEG) here at Leeds, with access to the support of existing research, data and expertise that both PEG Leeds and the wider faculty can provide. In particular, according to your particular research interests, the studentship could involve:

  1. Interpretation and analysis of volcanic dome structures on Mars and Earth using available data. For example, for Mars – high resolution MOLA, CTX, HiRISE and CaSSIS surface data in combination with shallow sub-surface SHARAD radar data to interpret the surface topography of volcanic dome structures alongside any associated sub-surface structure.
  2. Development of a plausible range of rock properties, using a combination of appropriate measured Terran values, alongside Martian estimates and any available incoming data from current Mars missions (e.g. InSight, Mars 2020, EXOMars 2022). Application of rock properties to interpretation and modelling of volcanic dome structures.
  3. Focussed modelling of volcanic dome structures, for example: Using a range of parameter values (including rock property values) within a discrete element numerical modelling approach, building on existing work at Leeds to develop and examine volcanic dome growth and behaviour across different planetary bodies.
  4. Comparison of Martian and Terran systems to analyse key controlling factors (e.g. rock properties, gravity, temperature) that control behaviour across different planetary conditions.

Potential for high-impact outcome

Understanding volcanic system behaviour and key environmental controls on Mars is a pressing issue, especially in support of planned and future spacecraft missions to the planet. We are in a unique position at Leeds to bring together a range of observational, modelling, and field approaches to answer important unresolved questions about planetary volcanic activity and evolution. The research topic has immediate relevance to improving our understanding of volcanic behaviour both on Mars and Earth, establishing and understanding of the key controlling parameters on this behaviour. We expect this project to result in several high-impact papers. There will be ample opportunities to deliver the results of the projects at both UK and international conferences.


The student will be given the opportunity to develop a suite of specialist scientific skills in remote sensing, surface and sub-surface structural analysis and volcanic system modelling. The training will incorporate a wide range of appropriate industry and academic software. Additional theoretical and practical training will be supported through attendance on relevant modules within the MSc Structural Geology with Geophysics, MSc Exploration Geophysics and MSc Engineering Geology programmes.

The student will also be encouraged to become a member of the relevant cross-institute research groups within the school, including Planetary Exploration, Volcanology and Tectonics. There will be the opportunity, and funding, to present research findings at national and international conferences and workshops. The student will also have the opportunity to do an element of fieldwork to study volcanic domes and develop field working skills during the project.

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

Student profile:

The student should have a strong Geoscience/Physical Sciences background (e.g. Geology, Geophysics, Physics), preferably having undertaken an MSc in Geoscience or related topic, with high competency in quantitative science and spatial modelling.


  • Broz,.P, Hauber, E., Platz, T., Balme, M., (2015), Evidence for Amazonian highly viscous lavas in the southern highlands on Mars, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v 415, p 200-212
  • Farrand, W.H., Rice, J.W., Chuang, F.C., Rogers, A.D., (2020), Spectral and geological analyses of domes in western Arcadia Planitia, Mars: Evidence for intrusive alkali-rich volcanism and ice-associated surface features, Icarus
  • Harnett, C.E., Thomas, M.E., Purvance, M.D., Neuberg, J., (2018) Using a discrete element approach to model lava dome emplacement and collapse, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v 359, p 68-77
  • Harnett, C.E., Heap, M.J., Thomas, M.E., (2020), A toolbox for identifying the expression of dome-forming volcanism on exoplanets, Planetary and Space Science, v 180
  • Walter, T., Harnett, C., Varley, N., Vargas Bracamontes, D., Salzer, J., Zorn, E., Breton, M., Arambula, R, Thomas, M., (2019), Imaging the 2013 explosive crater excavation and new dome formation at Volcan de Colima with TerraSAR-X, time-lapse cameras and modelling, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v369, p 224-237