The AXA Research Fund, a global initiative of scientific philanthropy supported by the worldwide insurance group AXA, is awarding 617,000 Euros to the University of Bristol to create a Chair on understanding and mitigating volcanic catastrophes, held by Prof Katharine Cashman. This Chair could notably answer key questions of how volcanic plumes form, how they spread, and how hazardous they might become.
The recent eruption of the volcano Eyafjallajokull in Iceland severely disrupted global air travel and highlighted the risks of volcanic eruptions to both local and distant populations. Fundamental gaps were recognized in the scientific understanding of volcanic plumes, how they are formed, and how their composition might be predicted. Their composition is critical for risk assessment as different particle sizes have dramatically different consequences for jet engine safety.
A new Research Initiative on Volcanic Plumes
New research is now underway thanks to the AXA Research Fund, a scientific philanthropy initiative that helps more than 350 researchers based in 26 countries to understand and prevent risks. Through a €617,000 grant, the AXA Research Fund has created a new chair in volcanology at the University of Bristol in the UK to lead a programme of research into volcanic plumes that will help local communities prepare better, as well as improve predictions of how plumes may affect aircraft in flight. The person selected for the chair is Professor Katharine Cashman, from the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon and an expert volcanologist with more than 30 years’ experience around the world. At Bristol she is teaming up with other acknowledged experts in volcanic processes and hazards, as well as specialists in the sociological aspects of communicating volcano risks.
A Novel Approach
The team will be conducting experiments using laboratory materials that behave in similar ways to magma. These experiments will help understand phenomena such as crystallization in the magma, providing detailed and practical insights into a process that happens under great temperature and pressure, beyond reach beneath the ground. “What’s pleasing is that AXA Research Fund is very forward looking. They are funding basic research and basic science as well as more short-term risk related research,” Professor Cashman notes. The novel approach she and her team are taking involves considering how the physical characteristics of a volcanic ash cloud depend on an evolving set of internal and extensive parameters such as magma composition, temperature and pressure or magma ascent path, regional stress field, and ice-cap melting. The research is scheduled to run for three years, after which it is hoped the team will have developed better scientific methods for predicting how volcanic plumes behave. This should benefit local communities who live near volcanoes, as well as airlines that need to know if it is going to be safe to fly.
A Prestigious University
The University of Bristol is consistently ranked among the leaders in UK higher education. Research-intensive and with an international reputation for quality and innovation, the University has 17,000 students from over 100 countries, together with more than 5,500 staff. In terms of the number of applications per undergraduate place, Bristol is one of the most popular universities in the country.
The Chair is based in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, one of the leading centres for research and teaching in the Earth Sciences, having been ranked in the top four UK departments of its kind since 2001. Research activity is organised into six groups covering everything from climate and environmental change, to palaeobiology and geochemistry; volcanic hazards and risks is one of the School’s leading interests and areas of expertise. The Chair is also part of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol, which brings together the University’s fundamental and responsive research on risks and uncertainties in a changing environment across science, social science and engineering. The Institute is co-sponsoring the launch of the AXA Chair on 29 May.
A Sensible Support for an Insurance Company
As an insurer, AXA has a role to build knowledge on risks to better prevent them and, if they occur, to better protect its customers against their consequences. This knowledge is firstly produced by AXA experts from field data and in-house analysis. Nevertheless, in a constantly changing world, our societies cannot only rely on the past to explain the future, nor on mere incremental adaptation of existing models. The AXA Research Fund therefore supports new independent academic research to challenge local or historical consensus and truly understand the current reality of risks. In this perspective, AXA also challenges its internal expertise by scientific knowledge produced independently by academics, and wishes to help academics share their discoveries to better inform public debate.
Paul Goswamy, Head of Property & Casualty Risk in AXA UK and sponsor of the chair, commented: “I am very proud to be the AXA sponsor of this chair, and I look forward to a fruitful and long-term intellectual partnership between AXA and University of Bristol. As Head of Property and Casualty Risk in AXA UK, better understanding of the impact of volcanic eruptions on our societies is crucial to help me better cover our clients and thus protect them: the recent Icelandic eruption recalled the importance for an insurer to develop a model, which could clearly link likelihood and impact of plume activity with its associated costs due to damages and business interruption; because volcanoes are not only threatening people living in their surroundings. AXA and its risk management experts will contribute to Prof Cashman’s research on volcanic plume mitigation by sharing our insurance expertise. Furthermore, the AXA Research Fund will help Prof Cashman disseminate her discoveries through its world-wide network to enrich the public’s scientific knowledge for a better mitigation of volcanic plumes in the world.”
About Prof Katharine Cashman, Chair holder
Katharine Cashman is a volcanologist with a long interest in the connection between chemical processes that control the formation of bubbles and crystals in rising magma, and the physical processes that control volcanic eruptions. At the same time, her early work as Public Information Scientist for the US Geological Survey during the 1980-1986 eruption of Mount St. Helens introduced her to both the challenges and importance of not only improving volcanic hazard assessment, but also developing effective channels of communication to public officials and communities. She has spent most of her career as a professor at the University of Oregon, USA. Her work has taken her to volcanoes around the world to study lava flows in Hawaii and Italy, cinder cone eruptions in Mexico and Oregon, explosive eruptions in Alaska and Ecuador, and eruptions under the ocean in the western Pacific.