School of Earth and Environment

Rachel Whitty Rachel Whitty

Postgraduate Researcher

Email address:

Affiliation: Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics


First Class MEarthSci with Honours Geology and Physical Geography, University of Edinburgh

Final project: The use of an infrared camera to analyse a volcanic eruption extraordinarily rich in SO2 and H2O. (2014-2015 Holuhraun Eruption, Iceland)

Research Interests

Gases and aerosols within volcanic plumes, distribution of volcanic plumes and environmental pollution

Teaching Interests


Project details

Project title

Tracking and measuring volcanic plumes using drones


Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (SEE), Dr Barabara Brooks (NCAS), Dr Anja Schmidt (University of Cambridge), Dr Melissa Pfeffer (Icelandic Meteorological Office), Dr Tjarda Roberts (CNRS Orleans)



Start date

1 October 2017

Project outline

Volcanic plumes are very complex mixtures of volcanic and atmospheric gases and small aerosol particles, such as sulphate. Knowing the aerosol size distributions and chemical composition are key requirements for assessing the environmental, climatic and human health impacts of volcanic emissions. The aim of this PhD project is to develop a new type of drone capable of measuring aerosol (mass and size distributions) in plumes from active volcanoes in order to better understand how volcanic plumes form and disperse in the atmosphere.

At many volcanoes the plume is very difficult to sample due to safety issues. Using drones is therefore an exciting new field of research, which is opening up important scientific opportunities. Airborne measurements allow several things that a ground-based set up does not, for example, measurements very close to the degassing vent, and vertical and longitudinal profiling of the plume. The longitudinal profiles are of particular interest as they can give new insights into how the plume composition changes between the volcanic vent and locations further downwind, in particular inhabited areas. Drone work on volcanic plumes has so far focussed predominantly on gas measurements, with relatively few attempts to measure aerosol particles.

In this project a drone (fixed wing and/or copter) will be equiped with a lightweight aerosol sensor. The project will involve testing of both the aerosol sensor and the drone. While aerosol measurements will be the primary focus of this work, the drone will also carry sensors for volcanic gases (e.g. SO2, CO2, H2S) as well as sensors for atmospheric temperature, pressure and humidity (which allows measurement of H2O). Combining aerosol and gas sensors on one drone platform allows to quantify the fractionation between the gas and aerosol phase inside the volcanic plume.

The main objective of this project is to develop and evaluate a new instrument and methods that will allow measurements inside volcanic plumes that are otherwise inaccessible, and to track plumes as they move away from the volcanic vent. This will involve:

  • Development of a suitable drone platform for carrying the aerosol and gas sensors
  • Drone testing, with first tests on volcanic geothermal areas in Iceland at non-eruptive gas fumaroles.
  • Data analysis, with comparison of the 3D observations made by the drone to more traditional methods (direct sampling and remote sensing).
  • Interpretation of the field data and modelling results to understand how the volcanic plume(s) move and change in time and space, and how this implicates environmental impacts.



Melissa A. Pfeffer, Baldur Bergsson, Sara Barsotti, Gerður Stefánsdóttir, Bo Galle, Santiago Arellano, Vladimir Conde, Amy Donovan, Evgenia Ilyinskaya, Mike Burton, Alessandro Aiuppa, Rachel C. W. Whitty, Isla C. Simmons, Þórður Arason, Elín B. Jónasdóttir, Nicole S. Keller, Richard F. Yeo, Hermann Arngrímsson, Þorsteinn Jóhannsson, Mary K. Butwin, Robert A. Askew, Stéphanie Dumont, Sibylle von Löwis, Þorgils Ingvarsson, Alessandro La Spina, Helen Thomas, Fred Prata, Fausto Grassa, Gaetano Giudice, Andri Stefánsson, Frank Marzano, Mario Montopoli and Luigi Mereu (2018) Ground-Based Measurements of the 2014–2015 Holuhraun Volcanic Cloud (Iceland). Geosciences, 8, 29. [Available from:]

Conference Proceedings

Whitty, R., Ilyinskaya, E., Roberts, T., Pfeffer, M., Brooks, B. and Schmidt, A. (2018) Tracking and measuring volcanic plumes using drones. Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group Meeting; Explosive Ideas, 63.

Isla C. Simmons, Rachel C. W. Whitty, Melissa A. Pfeffer, Helen Thomas, Bo Galle, Eliza Calder, Santiago Arellano and Fred Prata (2016) UV and IR measurements of sulphur dioxide emissions during and after the 2014-2015 Bárðarbunga eruption, Iceland. European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2016, Vienna. Abstract No. EGU2016-8764