UCL Earth Sciences


Meet Dr Emma Liu, Lecturer in Volcanology 

1 November 2019

First-year students Ningwei Ma, Victoria Spokes Mysa Alia Musa, Jiang Pan and Zakary Hansen met up with Emma in October to discover all about her research

Emma Liu image

Meet Dr Emma Liu, Lecturer & Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in Volcanology 

Emma’s passion for volcanoes had begun at age 6, after seeing the aftermath of the eruption of Mount St. Helens (US) on a family holiday. This has fueled Emma’s life-long love for volcanoes, leading up to her current research, which focuses on volcanic gases and the use of drone technology to obtain better gas samples.
Emma’s day-to-day work often consists of writing with a cup of coffee for half the day and working in the lab with her UAVs (unoccupied aerial vehicles) on the other half, alongside her teaching duties of course. Besides staying in the office, Emma’s work allows her to go on adventures too; she has visited many unusual locations for her research. For example, a field trip to Iceland enabled her to investigate how volcanic ash is formed during Icelandic eruptions. She found that ash deposits from eruptions up to several years prior were still being remobilised by large wind storms. This observation then fed into a project researching the ash-depositing sites and air-quality prediction. Among her experiences, field work is rarely straightforward and the team always faces many difficulties, particularly concerning the instrumental and logistical aspects. To be more specific, instruments used to collect data often work perfectly in labs yet can shut down unexpectedly when placed in extreme environments. Besides, field work often takes place in challenging environments, which can make the logistics of travel and transport difficult at times. The various contingencies prepared for all possible scenarios are crucial as Emma and her colleagues might not have another chance to visit the same location again.


An eruption at Eyjafjallajokull in April 2010 sent a huge ash cloud across Europe

Image: An eruption at Eyjafjallajokull in April 2010 sent a huge ash cloud across Europe.

Icelandic eruptions provided a lot of valuable research insights for Emma, including her proudest findings—the interaction of glacial water with magma during ‘hydromagmatic’ eruptions can produce more volcanic ash than comparable ‘dry’ eruptions. Rapid cooling of magma on contact with glacial water can cause it to fragment like glass into fine-grained and jagged ash. Consequently, even a moderate Icelandic eruption occurring in the vicinity of a glacier can exert unexpectedly large impacts on the world.
Emma’s current research focuses on using drones to measure volcanic gases remotely, at highly active but otherwise inaccessible volcanoes. Previously, these measurements would have only been possible with the use of satellites or direct sampling from around the volcano’s rim. She assured us that in some cases drones are more effective and considerably safer than the traditional methods. Emma told us how this research project was part of a ‘bigger’ global effort, coordinated by the Deep Carbon Observatory,  working towards improving our understanding of the contribution volcanoes make to global carbon flux.


Emma Liu (left) and Kieran Wood with a multi-rotor drone on Rabaul Volcano

Image: Emma Liu (left) and Kieran Wood with a multi-rotor drone on Rabaul Volcano.

In May 2018, Emma received the honour of being awarded the L’Oreal for Women in Science fellowship. Recently, she led a team of 30 members on an expedition to Papua New Guinea. Emma has always deeply appreciated her career which not only enriches her experience, but allows her to interact with a diverse range of people from all over the world, including many like-minded female researchers. With all of her past work in mind, she considers her ultimate goal as ‘to help local observatories potentially forecast changes in volcanic activity.’ Though there is still a long way to go, by collecting volcanic gases, tracking magma activities, making global observations and identifying patterns, “we are getting closer”, she says. In the future, people may accurately forecast volcanic eruptions the same way we can forecast the weather today. Should she and her colleagues succeed in their goal, it will be a significant breakthrough for volcanology.

Above and Beyond: Measuring volcanic emissions with drone technology
Science is constantly evolving. Knowledge taught in lectures is only the current state of understanding, so never be afraid of questioning the world. A piece of advice from Emma, “Think BIG and question everything!”