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Building Capacity through Knowledge Exchange: Drone-based Strategies for Volcano Monitoring, PI: Dr Emma Liu (Department of Earth Sciences)

The volcanoes on Papua New Guinea are a crucial part of the Earth’s carbon cycle and a major risk for local communities, but because they are so inaccessible they are almost impossible to study. So when volcanologist Dr Emma Liu began using drones to plug the data gap, she soon realised that the GIAA Impact Fund could help make local communities safer too.

When Cambridge volcanologist Dr Emma Liu heard about the GCRF GIAA Impact Fund, she was in Papua New Guinea, almost 9,000 miles from the UK. But she immediately knew that the funding could be the perfect way to translate her research on PNG’s volcanoes into a system local communities could use to reduce the risks those volcanoes posed.

It was October 2018, and along with 30 researchers from seven nations, Emma was working with the Deep Carbon Observatory – a 10-year global research effort to understand the Earth’s deep carbon reservoirs. Volcanoes emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans, and while PNG has dozens of important volcanoes, we know precious little about how much CO2 they emit.

“With 60-70 volcanoes potentially active at any one time, the PNG arc is a big uncertainty in the global picture because we have no carbon measurements,” says Emma. “That’s because to collect the data, we need to get close to their vents, and the volcanoes in PNG are very inaccessible. They’re often at high altitude and they’re densely vegetated, meaning access is via the avalanche routes that channel pyroclastic flows, so they’re extremely dangerous.”

As a result, Emma has been piloting new technology in the shape of drones to collect much-needed data from hard-to-reach volcanoes, and the GIAA call for funding made her realise that the technology could also help change the lives of local communities.

“We were on Manam, one of PNG’s volcanic islands, testing drones and collecting data. And we were also learning about the challenges people face – from the local scientists monitoring these volcanoes to local communities living with them,” she recalls. “When our grants coordinator emailed us about the GIAA, the penny dropped: we suddenly realised that the project was ready to translate – to give to local scientists. So we sat down, wrote the application, and were funded.”

In March 2019, Emma and colleagues from Bristol and Palermo returned to Rabaul to run a five-day knowledge exchange workshop for 17 local staff from the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory and local disaster management coordinators from across PNG. And after basic theory lectures on flight planning, safety, gas geochemistry and drone maintenance, it was time to get outside, get their hands on the drones and take flight.

“It was the first time any of them had used a drone, and it was fantastic. We wanted to start them flying from day one, learning the basics of piloting up and down, left and right. They soon progressed to negotiating an obstacle course in the sky, and by the end of the week we were running a mock scenario on the local volcano,” she says.

“The most rewarding part was watching them learn over the week, seeing them handle the drones – this technology they’d never seen before – with such care. And at the end of the workshop seeing them able to do it all themselves. When we left, we felt very confident about their skills.”

Since then the disaster coordinators have used the training workshop to leverage local funding to buy their own drones.

The drones, Emma hopes, will enable a step change in the way that PNG – a low-income country spread over a vast area – is able to cope with its natural hazards, providing a better early-warning system for volcanic eruptions as well as helping disaster coordinators respond better to landslides and floods.

Emma is also confident that the workshop and the drones will strengthen and deepen relationships between local scientists and those – like her – who come to PNG for research. “Larger science projects often allocate only small sums to capacity building, yet we are so reliant on local scientists’ help. That’s never sat well with me,” she concludes. “This GIAA project has improved our relationships with local researchers, which I’m sure will result in continued collaborations and stronger relationships.”


Funded by: GCRF Global Impact Acceleration Account 2018 University of Cambridge (EP/S515966/1)