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19-18. Volcanic lightning for early warning and characterization of explosive eruptions—A Subduction Zone Science Team Project


Closing Date: January 4, 2021

This Research Opportunity will be filled depending on the availability of funds. All application materials must be submitted through USAJobs by 11:59 pm, US Eastern Standard Time, on the closing date.

How to Apply

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Every day, hundreds of thousands of airline passengers are exposed to the potential risk of volcanic ash clouds erupted by the world’s 1500 active volcanoes. One of the key objectives of the U.S. volcano observatories is to provide timely warning of explosive eruptions that could impact life and property. As we usher in the forthcoming era of a National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) the observatories will have an expanded responsibility to provide fast, accurate information on eruption timing and intensity. Working in parallel, our partners at the NOAA-operated Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers aim to transition to quantitative ash forecasts as a best practice beginning in 2023 (World Meteorological Organization, 2020). Meeting these demands requires a leap forward in the scientific understanding of volcanic plumes to support timely, accurate forecasts.  

Volcanic lightning detection emerges as a game-changing technology in the realm of early volcano warning for three reasons: 1) explosive eruptions produce electrical signals that may be detectable immediately at the start of eruption, which in some cases provide the first indication of an ash-rich eruption currently underway; 2) rates of volcanic lightning can provide a proxy for plume height, mass eruption rate, and microphysical properties needed for more accurate ash dispersal forecasts; and 3) globally-detected volcanic lightning assists automated alerts for cloud detection and tracking as part of a multi-sensor, holistic approach involving satellite remote sensing and ground-based geophysics. 

Lightning research is gaining momentum for its value in characterizing eruption processes in near-real time (Behnke and McNutt, 2014). However, applying lightning operationally still requires some targeted scientific work on the fundamental physics of plume processes that lead to electrification. Recent studies suggest that lightning rates increase with increasing eruptive intensity (Van Eaton et al., 2020), but the lack of a physical or empirical model hinders our ability to use lightning data as a proxy for ash dispersal forecast inputs, such as plume height and mass eruption rate.  

For this project, we seek proposals that leverage numerical models to reproduce a suite of well-observed, lightning-rich eruptions and ideally integrate them with geophysical monitoring data from seismic and infrasound networks. The Fellow will have access to advanced volcanic plume models Ash3d (Schwaiger et al., 2012) and ATHAM (Van Eaton et al., 2015) at the USGS Advanced Research Computing group to simulate the dynamics of lightning-rich eruptions and constrain quantitative relationships between lightning rates and concentrations of hazardous ash. In particular, these plume models can simulate time-dependent airborne ash concentrations, rates of volcanic ashfall (Ash3d), and ice formation in eruption plumes (ATHAM), which will reveal new links between lightning flash-rates and eruption source parameters such as plume height, mass eruption rate, and water content. 

The Fellow would join a vibrant team of mentors who span USGS mission areas and federal agencies, and are actively publishing in the diverse fields brought to bear on this interdisciplinary project, from physical volcanology (Van Eaton) to satellite remote-sensing (Schneider, Pavolonis), numerical modeling (Schwaiger, Mastin), and ground-based geophysics (Haney). They will collaborate with a co-research advisor at NOAA (Pavolonis) to develop lightning-based alerting and eruption source parameter modules for NOAA’s Volcanic Cloud Analysis Toolkit and internal USGS products (e.g., VolcView). There is also the potential for collaboration with the Naval Research Lab (Michael Fromm) to take advantage of NRL's experience in near-real-time detection of explosive wildfire plumes that share electrification properties with volcanic plumes. Many of the tools used by the Department of Defense for wildfire tracking (mobile radar, lidar, research aircraft) are not presently in the USGS toolkit, and we would benefit greatly from an improved understanding of how to leverage these assets in the event of the next large eruption. As part of the USGS Subduction Zone Science Mendenhall Team, the Fellow will join the new National Science Foundation SZ4D Working Groups, providing a valuable coordination network of early career scientists across USGS, NSF, and the broader academic community. 

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisor(s) early in the application process to discuss project ideas. 


Behnke SA, McNutt SR (2014) Using lightning observations as a volcanic eruption monitoring tool. Bull Volcanol 76:847–812.  

Schwaiger H, Denlinger R, Mastin LG (2012), Ash3d: A finite‐volume, conservative numerical model for ash transport and tephra deposition. J Geophys Res 117:B04204. 

Van Eaton AR, Mastin LG, Herzog M, Schwaiger HF, Schneider DJ, Wallace KL, Clarke AB (2015), Hail formation triggers rapid ash aggregation in volcanic plumes. Nature Communications 6:7860. 

Van Eaton AR et al. (2016), Volcanic lightning and plume behavior reveal evolving hazards during the April 2015 eruption of Calbuco volcano, Chile. Geophys Res Lett 10.1002/2016GL068076. 

Van Eaton, A.R., Schneider, D.J., Smith, C.M. et al. Did ice-charging generate volcanic lightning during the 2016–2017 eruption of Bogoslof volcano, Alaska? Bull Volcanol 82, 24 (2020). 

World Meteorological Organization (2020), Meteorological Satellite Product Development in Support of the International Airways Volcano Watch, CGMS-48 WMO-WP-05 V1, 29-04-2020.  

Proposed Duty Station: Anchorage, AK or Vancouver, WA 

Areas of PhD: Geology, geophysics, or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered). 

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications: Research Geologist, Research Geophysicist  

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.) 

Human Resources Office Contact: Beverly Ledbetter, 916-278-9396, 

Apply Here