John M. Ball et al. holding a sign posing for the camera
Professor Jenni Barclay with RSE President Professor Sir John Ball – photo by Stewart Atwood Photography

Academics from across Scotland have been honoured for their outstanding academic achievements by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Among the list of names is Professor Jenni Barclay of the University of East Anglia, who has been awarded the Royal Society of Edinburgh James Hutton Medal for her outstanding contributions to the emerging field of social volcanology, engaging with communities in Ecuador, Colombia and the Caribbean to reduce risks posed by volcanic activity.

For Professor Barclay, the Hutton medal is a particularly fitting honour to receive. Quite apart from the shared interest in the field of geology, Prof Barclay is a proud Scot who moved to East Anglia. Hutton himself spent time working on a farm in the region learning about farming techniques.

A polymath and a hero

Prof Barclay said: “I have to say it is pretty astonishing for me. James Hutton is widely known as the father of geology, but more importantly he was someone who discovered and thought a lot about how volcanoes work. He was a polymath and kind of a hero of mine.

“He had these incredible ideas about all the connections that there were between different parts of the earth’s system, and he just thought differently and respected and thought carefully about observation. My reaction to winning this medal is just one of astonishment. I am so humbled.”

Prof Barclay studied at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Bristol, and now teaches at the University of East Anglia. With a career in geology and specialism in volcanology, her work in recent years has focused community engagement and resilience.

She said: “I have conducted research about where magmas are stored and what causes them to erupt, and what controls dangerous changes in their eruptive behaviour. Volcanoes spend a lot of time asleep so when they do erupt, it is all hands to the deck in terms of the observations you can make, and also how you can make good decisions in the face of volcanic activity and its accelerations.”

Studying volcanoes presents a unique set of challenges, as prior to an explosive eruption the activity is largely below the earth’s surface, and during an explosive eruption there is a lot happening in a short space of time.

Prof Barclay explained: “St Vincent in the Caribbean had an eruption in 2021 right at the height of the pandemic. Through my collaborators I have been working with communities as they recover from that eruption, and also to understand what drove it and what created the biggest impacts for people afterwards.

“The really tricky thing about a volcanic eruption is that a lot of things happen in a very short space of time. Most volcanoes don’t just erupt instantaneously. The median length of an eruption is about 4-6 weeks, and in the kind of systems that I work on they have this tendency to change their behaviour.

Reading signs and signals

“The biggest challenge we have really is that all the action before an eruption happens below the surface. We can’t see, feel or touch what happens to tell if the magma is coming up nice and gently or not, we are dependent on signs and signals at the surface.

“They can be nice and calm and quiet and kind of pour out lava gently, and then they can have these sudden explosive failures which can be very dangerous for populations at risk.

The challenge this presents is how to make the best decisions at the right time, often with incomplete information due to damaged instruments near the site, or obscured satellite imaging due to massive ash clouds. As Prof Barclay explains, the aftermath of an eruption is best treated like a crime scene, with evidence scattered all around.

“All the rocks that are spewed out around the volcano are evidence, and you can bring that sort of evidence together and figure out what it was about the sub surface conditions that drove those changes in behaviour and use those to try and do better next time, by using the indicators that we do have.”

Prof Barclay said that collating all of this information and working with various agencies and local populations has been shown to improve decision making, even in times of uncertainty. Eruptions that Prof Barclay studies can be calm for long periods, and easy to predict. However this can be followed by explosive periods.

“During the course of an eruption sometimes the types of volcanoes that I work on will be super quiet and then have an acceleration in activity,” she explained.

“One of the things we want to think about is how to make the best decisions when we are pretty uncertain. We can’t be definitive in volcanology because of these challenges.

Recognition for a different approach

“That’s where the community work that I have been doing comes in. Understanding what knowledge we can use, but also how this practice of working together and sharing information actually makes us collectively make better decisions in a crisis moment.”

For Prof Barclay the award represents acknowledgement of a different approach to scientific work, one focused on combining knowledge and collaborating with others to achieve new things.

“One of the reasons I am so delighted to win this award, because we have to do a lot more work behind the scenes to achieve that impact, and so whatever you do is not just about you, it is about the team around you,” she said.

“It feels like a recognition of that way of doing things in science.”