Volcanic ash, soil development and resilience in a changing climate: a case study from Montserrat


Volcanic ash, soil development and resilience in a changing climate: a case study from Montserrat


Project Description


Prof Jenni Barclay (UEA Environmental Sciences)

Dr Brian Reid (UEA)

Dr Mark Cave (British Geological Survey)

Scientific background

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a volcanic island in possession of some ash must become extremely fertile. Although 124 million hectares of the world’s land surface are volcanic ash soils, details of that transformation remain elusive, preventing effective adaptation to the changing pedosphere in the long and short term.   This studentship will address this challenge via some action research on a volcanic island (Montserrat in the Caribbean). Volcanic eruptions replenish the earth through the provision of fresh parent material (proto-soil). Fresh deposits are often rich in unweathered minerals, high in nutrients and of a pH conducive to plant growth. We will use Montserrat as an evolving experiment: the goal will be to create new knowledge of the processes by which fresh volcanic deposits improve soil fertility. This can be applied during future volcanic eruptions on tropical soils.  This will be an end-to-end research project where the research findings be used and applied in Montserrat.

Research methodology

Research is structured into three phases

(1) Farmers and citizen science: using local observations and volunteers to devise and help carry out relevant experiments.

(2) Detailed soil mapping and analysis  in three control regions. At three study sites (based on pedogenic maturity) and an unaffected ‘control’ site detailed analysis will  include (i) textural attributes of volcanic deposits and their influence on soil hydrology and erodability, and  ii) mineralogy and nutrient availability in the volcanic deposits.  The experiments with farmers on tephra addition, soil erodability and fertility will happen at one site.

(3) Soil Evaluation Framework (SEF). Combining outcomes from phases 1 and 2 above, the student will develop a new SEF for volcanic protosols and apply it to ascribe land capability/suitability for the whole island drawing on remote-sensing and experimental techniques developed at BGS.


UEA will provide analytical training in participatory methods, ICP OES and Elemental Analysis. BGS provides expertise in Mid-Infra Red Spectroscopy (MIRS) of soils and remote-sensing (hyperspectral) analysis. The whole team will provide training in experimental design and analysis

Person specification

Graduates in Environmental Sciences, Chemistry, Geology or related disciplines.


  • D.M. Lang. (1967) Soil and Land-use Surveys No. 22 Montserrat.
  • Peake, L.R., Reid, B.J., Tang, X. (2015) Quantifying the influence of biochar on the physical and hydrological properties of dissimilar soils. Geoderma 235, 182-190
  • Poulidis, A.P, Phillips, J.C. Renfrew, I.A. Barclay, J. Hogg, A. Jenkins, S.F. Roberetson, R.E.A. Pyle, D.M. (2018) Meteorological Controls on Regional and Local Ash. Sci. Reports
  • Stone, J., Barclay, J., Simmons, P., Cole, P.D. and Loughlin, S.C. Scientific and risk-reduction benefits of involving citizens in monitoring volcanic activity. (in revision) Volcanica.
  • SANTAMARIA-FERNANDEZ, R, CAVE, M R, and HILL, S J. 2006. Trace metal distribution in the Arosa estuary (N.W. Spain): The application of a recently developed sequential extraction procedure for metal partitioning. Analytica Chimica Acta, Vol. 557, 344-352.

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