DCO ABOVE Expedition: Updates from the Field

DCO ABOVE (Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions) is the second part of a DCO-funded project to explore volcanic emissions in Papua New Guinea using cutting-edge drone technologies.

DCO ABOVE Expedition

DCO ABOVE (Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions) is the second part of a DCO-funded project to explore volcanic emissions in Papua New Guinea using cutting-edge drone technologies (read more about part one of the project here). Led by Emma Liu of the University of Cambridge, UK, the expedition will see an international team of scientists collaborating with local volcano observatories to investigate these strongly degassing volcanoes. 

The team will be in the field throughout May and into early June.

Follow the team’s progress on the DCO Twitter account (@deepcarb), or check back here for blog posts from the field. 

29 May 2019: Manam: Deep Carbon science reaches new heights!

The DCOABOVE team has returned from eight days of field measurements on the remote volcanic island of Manam, and what an experience it has been! Our search for the elusive carbon flux and isotopic composition of this strongly degassing volcano in Papua New Guinea led us on a journey of discovery through the highs and lows of experimental field research, the camaraderie of team problem-solving under extreme conditions, and the complete physical and emotional immersion in the unique tribal culture of the Manam islanders for whom this active volcano is home.

Manam summit crater


Our goal was to obtain the first suite of volatile data and fluxes for Manam, which will be analyzed to fill a critical gap in the dataset of global volcanic carbon emissions that the DECADE group has been working towards over the past ten years of deep carbon research. We were also targeting the isotopic composition of emitted gases to investigate the source of carbon supplying the Papua New Guinea volcanic arc. To do this, our project focused on utilizing new developments in drone technology to change the way we sample inaccessible volcanic plumes.

Volcanic activity at Manam has been elevated in the past year, with strong eruptions occurring almost every month since August 2018. Our aerial overflights confirmed strong outgassing from two vent sources in the summit area. An extensive, sulfur-encrusted fumarole area feeds a low altitude plume, whilst the main crater emits a highly energetic, thermally buoyant plume that frequently rises to more than 1 km about the summit. We observed incandescence at night from the main vent, with evidence of persistent Strombolian activity during the period of our measurements.

Manam 2

Manam 3

The team caught their first glimpse of Manam as our convoy of three boats departed the mainland for the island, heavily laden with as much equipment and food supplies as we could carry. The crossing took around 90 minutes, meaning we arrived in darkness. However, we were greeted by crowds of hundreds of people waiting on the beach to welcome us, help carry our equipment, and show us to the generous accommodation that was to be our home for the next eight days. We were to stay in the home of the Chief of the village of Baliau, the largest community on the island of just over 3000 people. The following morning we were welcomed into island life by traditional singing, dancing and speeches; the whole experience was overwhelming and unique, and face-paint was definitely non-negotiable! 

Manam 4

Manam 5

Manam 6

Manam 7

The gas plume at Manam disperses at 2-3 km above sea level altitude, with the main crater ~5km horizontal distance from the closest launch sites we could access. To achieve our measurements, we needed a suite of versatile drone platforms to carry our sensors, which were capable of long-range and high endurance flights. Our arsenal included both fixed-wing aircraft, each carrying multiGAS instruments to measure CO2, SO2 and H2S as well as meteorological parameters, and multi-rotor platforms, carrying bag sampling devices for isotopic analysis, denuders for halogen speciation, mobileDOAS systems for the determination of SO2 flux, and alternative multiGAS instruments. 


Finding the optimal region of the plume to take our measurements was surprisingly challenging as the plume height and direction were extremely dynamic. Not only was the plume horizontally and vertically extensive over several kilometers, we also often had multiple plumes heading in different directions due to vertically dynamic wind profiles. One of the key outcomes from this project will be the publication of best practices for drone-based gas measurements, one of which is the synergistic workflow using ground-based sensing to locate the lateral extent of the plume, aerial multiGAS to constrain the altitude and concentration of the plume, and drone-mounted bag samplers targeted at the GPS location of the densest plume region to sample the plume in situ.

Manam plume 1

Manam plume 2

The DCOABOVE team was keen to be involved in outreach at a community level in both disaster preparedness and education. As part of our expedition, we visited the local primary school on Manam to speak to the students, show some of the techniques we are using to explore the volcano, and to learn about ongoing challenges of building a community in the face of such volcanic hazard. We brought letters with us from school-age children in the UK, and exchanged letters from the Manam students to take back with us. We also met with members of the Manam Volcanic Disaster Response Committee, a community-led program to increase their own resilience.

Manam outreach 1

Manam outreach 2

Manam outreach 3

Manam pano

All too soon, the time came to leave the island. We left Manam armed with exciting new data to process, samples to analyze, and a whole lot of lessons learned. This project has been an exhilarating, stimulating, and once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us, scientifically and personally. Over the next few months, we will be collating our results and publishing new insights into the carbon dynamics of the Papua New Guinea volcanic arc. But for now, the long journey home begins… gutbai, lukim yu bihain…!

23 May 2019: Rabaul and Tavurvur

With earthquakes and tribal fighting featuring in our first week or so in Papua New Guinea, it could be said that science hasn’t always been the first thing on everyone’s mind...but we’ve also seen very successful collaborations between different teams from day one and  many flights and daily ground sampling of the fumaroles at Tavurvur.

The first members of the DCOABOVE team arrived at the east end of New Britain, the part of PNG where Rabaul Caldera is located, on Sunday the 12th of May. During the drive to Rabaul town, our home for the next week, we caught our first glimpses of the ancient and recent volcanic cones that surround the bay, including our target, Tavurvur.

PNG vista

Rabaul and Tarurvur

Emma and Kieran

Emma Liu and Kieran Wood

An impressive array of delays meant that the full team didn’t arrive until Monday but those who arrived before headed out to Tavurvur on Sunday to explore the sampling and take-off locations.

On Tuesday night, at almost exactly 11pm we were all abruptly shaken awake by a ~M7.5 earthquake. The epicentre was located ~30km east of Rabaul. Rabaul is in a relatively sheltered location and tsunamis rare (although notably one did reach Rabaul town in 1971). Some members of the team have lived and worked in other earthquake prone places, but  the majority agreed this was the largest they had ever experienced.

In the wake of the earthquake, fieldwork on Wednesday took on a new dimension, with new cracks, crumbled rocks and ongoing aftershocks an an unmistakable reminder of the events the night before. Proceeding cautiously, the team managed to have another successful day in the field.

The sampling on Tavurvur almost immediately brought many of the different teams together. Replacement parts and expertise were shared and when drone-difficulties arose in the intense heat, instruments from one team were flown on and piloted by another team.

Much of our work this past week focused on testing drones, comparing outputs from different MultiGAS instruments and working out any issues so that we were ready for Manam. However, in-plume sampling using filter packs, denuders, and collection for carbon isotopes (both on the ground and in the air) were all attempted successfully. Suffice  
to say there was a lot going on!

PNG multigas

The DCOABOVE family of gas analyzers hanging out in the fumarolic plume of Tavurvur volcano.

drone in PNG

PNG Drone Closeup

Drone team on the beach

Saturday came around pretty quickly and suddenly we were leaving for the airport at 3am. An incredulously delay-less journey brought us to Madang Lodge, from where we were to leave for Manam the next day.

After shopping for 24 people for 8 days (a lot of food!) we left on Sunday morning for Manam. About halfway into the 4 hour journey we came to a sudden halt at a local gathering point. We were told that there was local tribal fighting on the road ahead and that we were to wait here for a police escort. And so we waited. Locals began to gather with an arsenal of handmade bows and arrows and catapults, and then walked out to the fighting, which was out of sight 2km ahead. Trucks with balaclava-wearing fighters drove past us as speed, indicating that the local people waiting with us should prepare to fight. Perhaps three hours after arriving, we were informed through Kila (of Rabaul Volcano Observatory) that we had been given the green light to drive through the fighting.

The fighting in this part of Madang province has been ongoing since 2004, although according to locals, has escalated in the last few weeks. When the Manam islanders requested voluntary evacuation from the island, the government set up three care centers. Competition for resources meant that tensions were soon fight between the two groups.

We’re glad to say that the whole team made it safely to Bogia, ready for a boat ride to Manam.

Flying silhouette

Flying denuder instruments to measure bromine in the plume of Tavurvur.​​​​​​

PNG aerial

Piloting drone

19 April 2019: DCO ABOVE prepares for take-off!

In less than three weeks, DCO teams from across the world will be on their way to Papua New Guinea for the start of the ABOVE (Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions) expedition. ABOVE seeks to use recently developed drone technology to explore new ways to sample volcanic gases, and learn more about the enigmatic carbon emissions from the Papua New Guinea volcanic arc. Through a global collaborative effort, ABOVE will fill some of the last remaining gaps in our understanding of the critical role of volcanoes in the deep Earth carbon cycle.

map of ABOVE team

Over the last few months the ABOVE teams have been busy developing new sensor systems and sampling devices, as well as advanced drone platforms to fly the instruments further, higher, and for longer. As we enter the countdown to departure day, everyone is busy in the final stages of field testing ironing out any remaining problems whilst safely back in home base. Meanwhile, our satellite team has been keeping us all up to date with what is going on at Manam, one of our target volcanoes. 

SO2 emissions in PNG
TROPOMI satellite images showing the on-going sulphur dioxide emissions from Manam.

ABOVE is growing! We welcome Zach Voss (Retroscope Media) and Matthew Wordell (Matthew Wordell Photography) to the ABOVE expedition team. This intrepid media duo will be documenting every second of the trip to create a stunning video documentary and photographic exhibition to bring the expedition to life for a much wider audience. Both will be shown for the first time at Deep Carbon 2019: Launching the Next Decade of Deep Carbon Science in Washington in October 2019, before making the journey across the Atlantic to the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge, to begin a year-long UK exhibition tour.

ABOVE planning meeting
ABOVE held a successful planning meeting in Cambridge in January 2019. Hosted in the stunning Queen’s College, this meeting gave the teams a chance to meet (some for the first time) and to start making detailed plans for both the fieldwork and subsequent research. 

After successfully leveraging additional Impact Acceleration funding from the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), Emma Liu and Kieran Wood from the ABOVE team were out in Papua New Guinea at the end of February to deliver a training workshop in drone operations at the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO). The GCRF project “Building capacity through knowledge exchange: Drone-based strategies for volcano monitoring” enables the provision of both equipment and training for the RVO to begin integrating aerial observations and gas measurements into their regular monitoring activities and volcanic crisis response. Importantly, this training means that RVO scientists will be actively participating in data collection during the ABOVE expedition in May 2019. In addition to Liu and Wood, the team involved in this impact acceleration project include Brendan McCormick Kilbride, Alessandro Aiuppa, Tom Richardson, and Marie Edmonds.

ABOVE training workshop

The GCRF training workshop involved both theory classes and practical sessions.

Training part 2

The drone training was hosted at Tavurvur crater, Rabaul.

As always, there will be many ways to check out the progress of the ABOVE expedition whilst the team is out in the field. Emma Liu will again be taking over the DCO Twitter account @deepcarb, as well as sending regular updates to DCO’s Engagement Team to be included on deepcarbon.net. In addition to the ABOVE Instagram account (dco_above), Emma will also be a guest grammer on the AGU Instagram account from 28 May to 1 June.

Further Reading

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