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UCL expedition commissioned by National Geographic leads to a lava lake discovery

An academic from UCL Earth Sciences worked with National Geographic to embark on an expedition to a volcano in the South Sandwich Islands, resulting in new scientific discoveries.

Mount Michael. Photograph by Renan Ozturk, National Geographic

24 June 2024

In 2020, Dr Emma Nicholson led an expedition to Saunders Island, part of the South Sandwich Islands, a volcanic archipelago stretching over 200 miles. This trip marked the culmination of years of planning. Dr Nicholson and her team hoped to finally discover whether or not Mount Michael – the volcano on Saunders Island – had a lava lake. 

Little was known about Mount Michael at the time. Almost persistent cloud cover means satellite imagery can only catch a glimpse of the volcano a few times a year. Poor weather conditions make it difficult for people to reach the island. Only a handful of individuals have landed on Saunders Island, and there have been no previous attempts to scale Mount Michael. Indeed, during Dr Nicholson’s 2020 expedition, blinding whiteout conditions meant they had to turn back before reaching the summit. 

On her return, Dr Nicholson wrote a blog about the expedition, and about the difficulties of trying to answer big scientific questions in her line of work. Fortuitously, a team at National Geographic found her article and offered to fund another expedition to Mount Michael. With support from UCL Consultants to negotiate the terms of the contract, Dr Nicholson successfully completed a Mount Michael expedition at the end of 2022.

Enabling ground-breaking science

It has been known for some time that Mount Michael has a thermal hotspot at its summit, which is a region much hotter than the surrounding land. When the clouds part enough for satellites to get a view of it, the imagery has shown thermal readings of temperatures exceeding 1000 Celsius, consistent with other volcanoes where molten magma is present at the surface. But without gaining access to Mount Michael, scientists couldn’t know for certain about the existence of a lava lake or be able to take measurements that would reveal more about how this volcano behaves and why the lava lake exists at all.

One of the most valuable types of volcanoes that we have as volcanologists are those that host lava lakes, they’re very rare. They come and go through geological time, and there are currently only nine worldwide. We see them as our natural laboratories. It’s like taking the lid off the top of a volcano. Lava lakes enable us to look inside, and then relate measurements we can make, such as the amount and chemistry of volcanic gases being released and the earthquake activity, directly to observations of how the magma is behaving. This is crucial information as at most volcanoes we cannot do that. We rely entirely on interpreting what we can measure at the surface to the processes that might be happening in the volcano deep below. At open vent volcanoes, we can actually see the relationship. So many of the greatest advances in our science have come from observations at lava lake volcanoes.” - Dr Nicholson explained.

When the team at National Geographic learned of Dr Nicholson’s first attempt at scaling Mount Michael, they were keen to help her achieve her goals on a new expedition. They talked for several months to discuss what their joint goals would be for a new expedition, and the idea successfully passed through the approval processes of the National Geographic team. At this point, Dr Nicholson contacted UCL Consultants for support. 

It was particularly important for Dr Nicholson to maximise the opportunity to achieve several key science goals on the expedition. The first was confirming the presence of a lava lake, which the team managed to do. Dr Nicholson and her team also wanted to install a seismometer to measure earthquake activity on the island. The team successfully did this, making this the first seismometer installed on land in the whole of the South Sandwich Islands. They collected water and snow samples from across Saunders Island, to understand more about how the volcano affects the hydrological cycle. Communities near volcanoes across the world collect rainwater for drinking, and so this information can help us understand how volcanic emissions over long periods of time affect how safe the water is to drink. The team also took chemical measurements of the gases being constantly released from the volcano, enabling them to understand more about the structure of the magma system beneath the volcano.

“We're thrilled to have had the opportunity to support Dr Emma Nicholson and National Geographic on this fascinating documentary project. When this project came in, it was unlike any we’d previously handled, requiring careful advance consideration of the extreme environment and conditions in which Emma would be working, as well as the exciting but unusual post-expedition engagements, such as international media events and press conferences. Supporting Emma in undertaking this consultancy project was a genuinely rewarding experience; the final expedition documentary is a testament to this extraordinary undertaking by Emma and the team.
This project is a great example of the spectrum of endeavours that UCLC can support; more importantly, we are genuinely proud of being a gateway to a such diverse pool of subject matter experts who can tackle a wide array of challenges, making each project truly unique.” - Janette Junghaus, Senior Consultancy Manager

Reaching a huge audience

The expedition was a resounding success, resulting in the confirmation of a lava lake, plus the collection of a large amount of invaluable data. Dr Nicholson and her team are looking into the environmental effects of the volcano, while the seismometer was able to provide information about the ‘restlessness’ of Mount Michael too. 

Dr Nicholson has also been contacted by teachers from schools in different countries, who have been inspired by the documentary. As a result, she has taken part in Zoom chats with pupils of different age groups, answering their questions and discussing what volcanologists do.

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