Sensing Volcanoes at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Sensing Volcanoes at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Oxford Earth Sciences researchers and students are looking forward to engaging thousands of members of the public with their leading research on volcanic eruptions.

The Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition is one of the most prestigious science public engagement events, having taken place in the heart of central London for more than 200 years. Between Tuesday 4 – Sunday 9 July, more than 10,000 visitors are expected to attend the week-long, free festival that will showcase the latest cutting-edge science from across the UK.

Together with colleagues from the University of East Anglia and University of the West Indies, researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences will be leading one of the nine flagship exhibits this year, called Sensing Volcanoes. This draws on Oxford’s world-leading expertise in volcanology to illustrate the realities of living in the shadow of a volcano.

Left: A female geologist crouches on the rim of a volcano. With one hand she types on a laptop and with the other she holds up a piece of sensory equipment. Right: A steaming triangular-shaped summit of a volcano surrounded by tropical forests.

(Left) Leanka Henry, geologist at the La Soufrière St Vincent monitoring unit sets up gas monitoring equipment on the rim of the crater produced after the 2021 explosive eruption of the volcano. Credit: Bridie Davies at UEA. (Right) View of the steaming summit of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat, in March 2023. Credit: David Pyle.

Exhibit lead Professor David Pyle, from Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, said: ‘We have created a multi-sensory and hands-on exhibit that will show how people have tried to sense or detect change at restless volcanoes both through observation and measurement; and how scientists use sensing data to understand what is happening underground.’

A key attraction will be the ‘The Imaginarium’: a light up floor installation which simulates what happens during a volcanic eruption, both the hazards at the surface and the magmatic processes taking place deep underground. Produced by a collaboration between scientists and artists using real data from the 2020-21 eruption of La Soufrière St Vincent, the installation reconstructs the sub-surface movements of magma and gases before and during the eruption. This will enable visitors to experience the seismic shifts of an active Caribbean volcano before playing ‘The Floor is Magma!’: an interactive game that tests decision-making skills during a simulated eruption.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to:

  • Experience the sounds, smells, and sensations that act as signals of volcanic and magmatic processes through a range of sensory activities;
  • Explore how the instruments used to detect signals from volcanoes have evolved over the last 150 years, with the opportunity to try some for themselves;
  • Listen to a selection of stories from the people of Montserrat and St Vincent, including eye-witness accounts of the volcanic eruptions of 1890 and 2000.
A person stands on a floor made up of illuminated tiles of different colours.

The light up floor of the Imaginarium. Credit: David Pyle.

The exhibition has been developed as part of Curating Crises, a collaboration between researchers at the University of the West Indies and UK institutes to investigate the histories of volcanic crises in the Caribbean. By uncovering the previously hidden roles of local and experiential knowledge in shaping responses to volcanic crises, this work is acting as a lens to explore more widely how colonial influences have impacted the creation and circulation of knowledge.

Professor Pyle added: ‘The Curating Crises project is helping us to explore and share stories of how people have responded to volcanic eruptions in the past. This helps us better understand how scientists, public officials, and communities can work together to cope with uncertainties in the face of the threats from natural hazards, and to prepare for future events.’

The Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition takes place between Tuesday 4 – Sunday 9 July at 6 – 9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG. Entry is free and no booking is required. Full information can be found on the Society’s website.

You can hear Professor Pyle describing the Imaginarium when it premiered at the 2023 Norwich Science Festival in this episode of the Coffee and Geography podcast.

This has been edited from a University of Oxford news item.