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£1/2 million boost for Earth Sciences

Press release issued: 10 June 2003

Bristol University's Department of Earth Sciences has been awarded more than half a million pounds in grant money from the National Environment Research Council (NERC).

Bristol University's Department of Earth Sciences has been awarded more than half a million pounds in grant money from the National Environment Research Council (NERC) for three separate studies on volcanic eruptions, glaciers and the distribution of water in the Earth's mantle.

The three awards, totalling £573,778, represent more than a quarter of all the grants allocated to earth sciences across the UK in the latest round of NERC funding.

Professor Stephen Sparks and Dr Peter Talling have been awarded £207,181 to study the distribution of volcanic products in the sea from the ongoing eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat.

This eruption is now twice as large as the eruption of Mount St Helens and is still continuing eight years after it began in July 1995. About 70 per cent of the erupted material has ended up in the sea, sometimes in spectacular style when red-hot flows of volcanic ash run down the side of the volcano and into the sea at more than 100 kph.

Professor Sparks and Dr Talling have the funds to bring the research vessel James Clark Ross of the British Antarctic Survey to the Caribbean on its journey between the UK and Antarctica to take samples from the sea floor around Montserrat. This study will be a unique opportunity to find out how a major volcanic eruption changes the oceans.

Dr Heidy Mader, along with researchers from Aberystwyth and Leeds, has been awarded £187,734 to study the spatial variability of the chemical and physical parameters of alpine glaciers.

Currently, the detailed spatial characteristics of such glaciers are not included in flow models. As a result, predictions of the response of temperate glaciers to climate change are probably erroneous.

The funded project involves a programme of interdisciplinary research that will integrate field research (borehole and surface radar and 3D temperature data) and laboratory experimentation (ice crystallography, liquid water content and ionic concentration, and high-resolution TDR - time domain reflectometry) to reconstruct the 3D physical structure of the Glacier de Tsanfleuron, Switzerland, as a case study.

This structure, combined with 3D velocity data, will be used to tune a high-resolution, numerical model of valley-glacier flow that allows for spatial variation of the flow properties.

Dr Simon Kohn and collaborator, Dr Richard Brooker, have been awarded £178,863 to work out how much water is stored in the Earth's mantle, the deep part of the Earth below the crust.

The mantle is solid, but very hot, and can flow at about the speed that human fingernails grow. Water is important in the mantle, because it dramatically increases the rate of this flow, and therefore has a strong influence on the way plate tectonics works on the Earth. In addition, water decreases the temperature at which the mantle melts, leading to the formation of magmas which can escape from the mantle and reach the surface at volcanoes.

The Bristol team will use infrared spectroscopy to study chunks of the mantle which are brought to the surface during volcanic eruptions. They will then compare these natural samples with samples heated and squeezed in the lab to the same extreme conditions which exist in the mantle.

The work will show them how the water concentration in the mantle varies from place to place, and what happens to the water when the mantle melts. Ultimately the aim of the work is to help understand how water in the interior of the Earth has helped in the evolution of a planet with surface conditions suitable for sustaining life.

Professor Mike Benton, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, said: "This recent crop of major grant funding adds to the strong international reputation of the Department of Earth Sciences. It allows us to follow up some fundamental problems in environmental and earth sciences which will have a big impact on our understanding of how the earth works and the human impacts of geological hazards."

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