VMSG and COMET 2018 (or a Tale of Two Conferences)

The Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group (VMSG) held a conference from the 3-6th of January in Leeds. The Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) held a student conference from 8-9th January in Cambridge. It was a conference double-whammy about all things volcanic – heaven!

VMSG is a joint special interest group of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Geological Society of London. The VMSG conference is a fairly small affair, with about 200 in attendance, and it brings together research in geochemistry, seismology, volcanology and related fields. Because of its size, it’s a nice informal space where there is a focus on students presenting their work to the VMSG community, but anyone is free to present their research.

Talks ranged from how tiny fossils, called diatoms, became trapped in a pyroclastic density current, to modelling of lava domes, to how local people interact with the volcano they live on at Masaya, to every aspect of volcanology you can think of. The final talk was definitely a highlight – with everyone in 3D glasses to look at volcanic plumes across Russia, it really brought the satellite images to life (and we got to keep the glasses).

90 posters on a variety of topics were presented, the majority of which were by students (I was one of them). There was of course an obligatory dinner and disco to round off the second day of talks, and a great chance to network with other people from VMSG.

For the best poster title of the conference, you need look no further than this gem.

The conference also provides workshops on different aspects of research, with sessions on writing papers, diffusion modelling and InSAR to name a few. These were hosted on the 6th at the University of Leeds Environment and Earth Sciences Department, and comprised a full day of talks and labs so you could get to grips with the techniques you were being shown. I attended the InSAR workshop, which gave a good introduction to the topic of comparing two satellite images and seeing where the ground had moved. There was also a session on deformation modelling in the afternoon and playing with bits of code.

An afternoon of modelling InSAR deformations and code – hill-arity ensued.

Then it was onto the second leg of the conferences, which took the action to Cambridge, where students that are part of COMET met up to discuss work and attend talks from 8-9th January.

Gneiss weather in Cambridge!

COMET is a National Environment Research Council Centre of Excellence, it comprises a group of researchers that uses remote and ground sensed data and models to study earthquakes and volcanoes. They also work with the British Geological Survey and the European Space Agency, and fund PhD projects in related fields.

The meet-up of students comprised two days of talks from students, with some keynote speakers who had been past members of COMET that had gone on to careers outside of academia. The talks from second and third years included: remote sensing and InSAR being used to examine tectonic strain in the East African Rift Valley and slip (movement) rates along faults in Tibet, modelling how gas bubbles in magma change the more crystals you add to the magma, and using cosmogenic isotopes to work out slip rates on a fault in Italy.

The Department had cabinets and cabinets of samples that rocked.

First years are also given the chance to give a talk lasting 5 minutes, so I filled people in on what I’d been up to in the past four months – lots of data collection! My project will be using satellite data to look at the varied eruption behaviour of Bagana volcano in Papua New Guinea, with a view to modelling this behaviour to better understand what causes it. Bagana has a tendency to send out thick lava flows in long pulses and let out lots of gas, and occasionally then violently erupt and let out lots of ash and hot pyroclastic density currents. But it is very understudied, as it is so remote – so there’s lots still to be learnt about it!

Me with my poster (I’ve run out of geology puns).

The meet-up also included a fancy meal in Pembroke College’s Old Library, with candles and it felt a bit like being at Hogwarts! Then it was back to Reading, thoroughly worn out, but with lots of ideas and many useful contacts – VMSG2019 is in St. Andrews and I can’t wait.

Understanding our climate with tiny satellites

Gristey, J. J., J. C. Chiu, R. J. Gurney, S.-C. Han, and C. J. Morcrette (2017), Determination of global Earth outgoing radiation at high temporal resolution using a theoretical constellation of satellites, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 122, doi:10.1002/2016JD025514.

Email: J.Gristey@pgr.reading.ac.uk          Web: http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~fn008822/

The surface of our planet has warmed at an unprecedented rate since the mid-19th century and there is no sign that the rate of warming is slowing down. The last three decades have all been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850, and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2001. The latest science now tells us that it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming1, mainly due to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. These greenhouse gases trap heat energy that would otherwise escape to space, which disrupts the balance of energy flows at the top of the atmosphere (Fig. 1). The current value of the resulting energy imbalance is approximately 0.6 W m–2, which is more than 17 times larger than all of the energy consumed by humans2! In fact, observing the changes in these energy flows at the top of the atmosphere can help us to gauge how much the Earth is likely to warm in the future and, perhaps more importantly, observations with sufficient spatial coverage, frequency and accuracy can help us to understand the processes that are causing this warming.

Figure 1. The Earth’s top-of-atmosphere energy budget. In equilibrium, the incoming sunlight is balanced by the reflected sunlight and emitted heat energy. Greenhouse gases can reduce the emitted heat energy by trapping heat in the Earth system leading to an energy imbalance at the top of the atmosphere.

Observations of energy flows at the top of the atmosphere have traditionally been made by large and expensive satellites that may be similar in size to a large car3, making it impractical to launch multiple satellites at once. Although such observations have led to many advancements in climate science, the fundamental sampling restrictions from a limited number of satellites makes it impossible to fully resolve the variability in the energy flows at the top of atmosphere. Only recently, due to advancements in small satellite technology and sensor miniaturisation, has a novel, viable and sustainable sampling strategy from a constellation of satellites become possible. Importantly, a constellation of small satellites (Fig. 2a), each the size of a shoe-box (Fig. 2b), could provide both the spatial coverage and frequency of sampling to properly resolve the top of atmosphere energy flows for the first time. Despite the promise of the constellation approach, its scientific potential for measuring energy flows at the top of the atmosphere has not been fully explored.

Figure 2. (a) A constellation of 36 small satellites orbiting the Earth. (b) One of the small “CubeSat” satellites hosting a miniaturised radiation sensor that could be used [edited from earthzine article].
To explore this potential, several experiments have been performed that simulate measurements from the theoretical constellation of satellites shown in Fig 2a. The results show that just 1 hour of measurements can be used to reconstruct accurate global maps of reflected sunlight and emitted heat energy (Fig. 3). These maps are reconstructed using a series of mathematical functions known as “spherical harmonics”, which extract the information from overlapping samples to enhance the spatial resolution by around a factor of 6 when compared with individual measurement footprints. After producing these maps every hour during one day, the uncertainty in the global-average hourly energy flows is 0.16 ± 0.45 W m–2 for reflected sunlight and 0.13 ± 0.15 W m–2 for emitted heat energy. Observations with these uncertainties would be capable of determining the sign of the 0.6 W m–2 energy imbalance directly from space4, even at very short timescales.

Figure 3. (top) “Truth” and (bottom) recovered enhanced-resolution maps of top of atmosphere energy flows for (left) reflected sunlight and (right) emitted heat energy, valid for 00-01 UTC on 29th August 2010.

Also investigated are potential issues that could restrict similar uncertainties being achieved in reality such as instrument calibration and a reduced number of satellites due to limited resources. Not surprisingly, the success of the approach will rely on calibration that ensures low systematic instrument biases, and on a sufficient number of satellites that ensures dense hourly sampling of the globe. Development and demonstration of miniaturised satellites and sensors is currently underway to ensure these criteria are met. Provided good calibration and sufficient satellites, this study demonstrates that the constellation concept would enable an unprecedented sampling capability and has a clear potential for improving observations of Earth’s energy flows.

This work was supported by the NERC SCENARIO DTP grant NE/L002566/1 and co-sponsored by the Met Office.


1 This statement is quoted from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report. Note that these reports are produced approximately every 5 years and the statements concerning human influence on the climate have increased in confidence in every report.

2 Total energy consumed by humans in 2014 was 13805 Mtoe = 160552.15 TWh. This is an average power consumption of 160552.15 TWh  / 8760 hours in a year = 18.33 TW

Rate of energy imbalance per square metre at top of atmosphere is = 0.6 W m–2. Surface area of “top of atmosphere” at 80 km is 4 * pi * ((6371+80)*103 m)2 = 5.23*1014 m2. Rate of energy imbalance for entire Earth = 0.6 W m–2 * 5.23*1014 m2 = 3.14*1014 W = 314 TW

Multiples of energy consumed by humans = 314 TW / 18.33 TW = 17

3 The satellites currently carrying instruments that observe the top of atmosphere energy flows (eg. MeteoSat 8, Aqua) will typically also be hosting a suite of other instruments, which adds to the size of the satellite. However, even the individual instruments are still much larger that the satellite shown in Fig. 2b.

4 Currently, the single most accurate way to determine the top-of-atmosphere energy imbalance is to infer it from changes in ocean heat uptake. The reasoning is that the oceans contain over 90% of the heat capacity of the climate system, so it is assumed on multi-year time scales that excess energy accumulating at the top of the atmosphere goes into heating the oceans. The stated value of 0.6 W m–2 is calculated from a combination of ocean heat uptake and satellite observations.


Allan et al. (2014), Changes in global net radiative imbalance 1985–2012, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41, 5588–5597, doi:10.1002/2014GL060962.

Barnhart et al. (2009), Satellite miniaturization techniques for space sensor networks, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets46(2), 469–472, doi:10.2514/1.41639.

IPCC (2013), Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, available online at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/.

NASA (2016), NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally, available online at https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-data-show-2016-warmest-year-on-record-globally.

Sandau et al. (2010), Small satellites for global coverage: Potential and limits, ISPRS J. Photogramm., 65, 492–504, doi:10.1016/j.isprsjprs.2010.09.003.

Swartz et al. (2013), Measuring Earth’s Radiation Imbalance with RAVAN: A CubeSat Mission to Measure the Driver of Global Climate Change, available online at https://earthzine.org/2013/12/02/measuring-earths-radiation-imbalance-with-ravan-a-cubesat-mission-to-measure-the-driver-of-global-climate-change/.

Swartz et al. (2016), The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat Mission: A Pathfinder for a New Measurement of Earth’s Radiation Budget. Proceedings of the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, SSC16-XII-03