COMET honoured by Royal Astronomical Society

COMET’s achievements in Earth observation and modelling have been recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in their latest round of awards.

Members of the COMET research group at a meeting in Oxford

Members of the COMET research group at a meeting in Oxford

The 2018 RAS Group Achievement Award in Geophysics acknowledges COMET’s success in using satellite and ground-based observations and geophysical modelling to study earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonics across the globe.

COMET Director Tim Wright said: “We are delighted that our collective achievements have been recognised by the RAS in this way. It’s particularly rewarding to receive an honour for the full breadth and depth of COMET’s research.”

In granting the award, the RAS highlighted COMET’s contributions to satellite geodesy, particularly Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry (InSAR), which has significantly improved COMET’s ability to respond to tectonic events. Notably, COMET’s InSAR capabilities allowed rapid and in-depth investigations into the 2016 Amatrice, Italy and Kaikoura, New Zealand earthquakes.

Multi-coloured striped interferogram of the Amatrice earthquakeimage

Sentinel-1 interferogram of the ground deformation around Amatrice, Italy due to the 24 August 2016 earthquake.

Professor Wright added: “In both cases, we used InSAR to reveal the surprising complexity of the underlying faults, helping us to interpret the events and improve seismic hazard models.”
The launch of LiCSAR, COMET’s automated processing system, in December 2016 represented a major forward step in managing the vast amounts of data generated by the Sentinel-1 constellation, part of the EU’s Copernicus programme. LiCSAR is enabling scientists to study specific earthquakes and eruptions as well as longer-term records of tectonic strain and ground deformation around volcanoes – including potential signs of eruption.

The service is already providing high-resolution deformation data for the entire Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt, where most of the planet’s deadly earthquakes occur, and will be expanded to provide global coverage of the tectonic belts over the next few years.

Image of the world's continents, showing LiCSAR, the COMET-LiCS Sentinel-1 InSAR portal

LiCSAR, the COMET-LiCS Sentinel-1 InSAR portal

COMET is also using automated Sentinel-1 data alongside other techniques to monitor deformation at over 900 volcanoes worldwide, including regions with hazardous volcanoes that have no ground-based monitoring in place. The ultimate goal is to monitor all active land volcanoes, around 1,300 in total.

Elsewhere in COMET, satellite imagery is being combined with topographic data and fieldwork to create a database of active faults in the Tien Shan, a region of high seismic hazard in northern Central Asia. Working with international partners, this is creating a robust regional model of strain accumulation and release that can be used in hazard management.

Atmospheric studies are also central to COMET’s work. The satellite-borne Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Instrument (IASI) is being used to monitor volcanic ash and SO2 emissions such as those from Holuhraun (Iceland), whose eruption in 2014-15 was a major source of SO2 emissions. Holuhraun’s remoteness made it difficult to monitor the volcano from the ground, especially during the harsh Icelandic winter, but using IASI data, COMET was able to provide insights into both the volcano’s behaviour and its environmental impacts. The same approach has now been extended to other remote volcanoes such as Kamchatka (Russia) and Tungurahua (Ecuador). COMET Deputy Director Professor Tamsin Mather commented: “Using satellites to monitor and understand volcanic systems has delivered key advances over the last decades and COMET’s contributions have been central to this. Satellite technology allows us to monitor volcanoes on a global scale, in remote locations and without having to send researchers into potentially risky environments. There are many more exciting advances to come.”

Graph showing Elevated levels of SO2 frequently identified using IASI measurements at volcanoes in Ecuador and Kamchatka, Russia

Elevated levels of SO2 frequently identified using IASI measurements at volcanoes in Ecuador (a,b) and Kamchatka, Russia (c,d)

These are just a few aspects of COMET’s work, carried out by researchers across the UK as part of national and international collaborations. At the same time, COMET is supporting a vibrant community of around 80 research students, working on topics ranging from monitoring volcano deformation to modelling earthquake sequences. There is a strong commitment to developing the next generation of researchers, with COMET providing bespoke training to both members and the wider community on interpreting InSAR and GPS data to better understand geohazards and achieve scientific goals.

Oxford’s connections with COMET are many and varied. Oxford was the lead institution when COMET was founded, with Professors Barry Parsons and Philip England two of its then five investigators. Professor Parsons was director from 2002 to 2013; Professor Tim Wright (Wolfson 1997), a research student and Royal Society University Research fellow here until 2006, took over as Director in 2013. Professor Tamsin Mather is currently Deputy Director of COMET, and many of COMET’s researchers are current or former students, researchers and faculty.

Barry Parsons responded: “We are delighted that our efforts to grow the community of UK scientists1 using Earth Observation to investigate earthquakes, volcanoes and the deeper processes giving rise to them, and the scientific results that have followed, have been recognised in this way.”

1 COMET is currently distributed across nine UK academic institutions: the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford and Reading and University College London, having started in just three: Oxford, Cambridge and UCL.

The original press release is available on the COMET website.