Deep Thinking

Deep Thinking

What’s really happening beneath our feet? Physicists and Environmental Scientists at UEA are using ingenious methods to work out exactly what’s flowing under the Earth’s surface, helping us to better understand earthquakes, volcanoes and the complex engine at the heart of our dynamic planet.

Physicists at UEA don’t just work on abstract mathematics (although they do that too); many of our physicists apply their knowledge to all sorts of fascinating and surprising fields, like volcanology, seismology and meteorology.

Dr Jessica Johnson is a geophysicist who uses physics to explore the many processes taking place below the surface of the Earth, particularly the varying movements and pressures of fluids like gas, magma and water. As these fluids flow through underground channels, they can lead to the kind of geophysical hazards that devastate communities, including volcanic eruptions and large earthquakes.

The amazing techniques that Dr Johnson uses help us to understand exactly how this ‘subsurface fluid movement’ contributes to the generation of these destructive phenomena, giving us a better chance of monitoring, forecasting and mitigating them.

She uses advanced technology, including supercomputers, satellites and sensitive motion sensors to study seismic activity and ground deformation at active sites. This research has taken her across the world to volcanoes in Hawai`i, New Zealand and Ecuador, where she works with teams of researchers to build accurate models of the volatile underground terrain.

Since a complex interaction of various processes is responsible for natural disasters, these research teams bring together multiple numerical models to generate ‘super models’ that synthesise different data streams into a unified picture. These models are used to assess what might be happening in places that we can’t directly observe, and also to forecast future activity.

This pioneering work is deepening our understanding of these subterranean physical processes. This understanding is crucial to mitigating risk from natural hazards as the knowledge can be fed into monitoring efforts and disaster planning strategies (for example, Dr Johnson’s work has already changed the way some volcano monitoring data in Hawai`i is assessed and interpreted). Additionally, the fundamental physics that these models elucidate can be applied to other environments where subsurface fluid monitoring is important such as conventional, unconventional and renewable energy resources.

Dr Johnson’s work forms part of a huge range of ground-breaking research that takes place at UEA, working at the interface of Environmental Science and Physics. We want to understand all aspects of our global environment, from the land and oceans to the atmosphere and the Earth’s core.

At UEA, we have experts in many fields – oceanographers, meteorologists, geophysicists, climate change experts and volcanologists – whose individual research contributes to our understanding of the bigger picture about our planet, and our interactions with it.

Could you make ground-breaking discoveries?

The Expert

Dr Jessica Johnson

Lecturer in Solid Earth Geophysics
School of Environmental Sciences

Jessica joined UEA in 2015 and lectures in Solid Earth Geophysics. Her main research interests are in geophysical hazards, specifically volcano seismology and geodesy, and earthquake seismology.

The role of subsurface fluid movement in the generation and evolution of geophysical hazards is an important topic of research for understanding the mechanism and driving forces of volcanic eruptions and large earthquakes, and also for improving our ability to monitor and forecast disastrous events. Jessica uses seismology and ground deformation in her research to quantify the effects of subsurface fluid movement of the critical systems in question.

Her current research includes: repeating earthquakes near Mount Ruapehu Volcano in New Zealand, seismic anisotropy at volcanoes in Ecuador and Iceland, deformation and seismicity associated with magma movement at Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii.

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