Jun 28 2021

Professor Matthew Thirlwall, Department of Earth Sciences, went on a trip to Iceland two/three weeks ago and studied volcanic activity. We recently caught up with Matthew to ask more about his trip and the activity that he saw. 

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Earth Sciences?

I am one of the last few remaining original members of the Geology Department at Royal Holloway, now Earth Sciences, when it was founded in 1985.  I’ve spent a lot of that time running analytical laboratories for geochemistry and isotope geochemistry, and indeed still have some responsibilities in that area, despite only being 20% employed for the last few years.  I’ve been deputy head of department for several years and chair of the undergraduate exam board from 2007-2015, amongst other responsibilities. I also ran a year 4 student field trip based on camping in Iceland, from 2007 to 2014.  Despite being only 20% employed, I still teach in metamorphic geology and regional geology courses and help staff and students with some of their geochemistry analytical needs.

2. You recently went on a trip to Iceland to develop your research on volcanic activity, what can you tell us about your findings?

I’ve been carrying out research on the isotope geochemistry of volcanic rocks in the north Atlantic since 1993, when I was awarded a NERC grant for work on the Reykjanes Ridge, and specifically on Iceland since 1994, when Mary Gee started a PhD project on the Reykjanes Peninsula.  And I have an important paper to write on the area at present, so when the current eruption started on March 19, the first in the area since AD1240, it was essential that I get there rapidly!  At present, I have just got the rock samples home, so it will take a little time before I have results! 

3. How did it feel to be in the presence of live volcanic activity? 

It’s the first time I’ve been on an erupting volcano since the 1980s, and I’ve never been as close to the lava as this visit.  So yes, it was very exciting.  Photos/videos can’t easily convey the sounds (of the flow, of expanding glass fracturing) because of wind noise, or the smell! It was amazing to watch the regular (ten minute intervals) events of high lava productivity, fast downhill lava flows associated with lava tube breakouts, and the details of development of a pahoehoe flow system.

4. What inspired you to focus your research on volcanic activity?

My undergraduate tutor at Oxford, Stuart McKerrow, was key to my developing a strong interest in the development of the mountain chains in the British region some 500-400 million years ago, for which ancient volcanic rocks provide key evidence, and this was followed by a PhD in Edinburgh working, with Godfrey Fitton, on the geochemistry of these ancient volcanic rocks in Britain. 

5. What’s your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway? 

Difficult to name a single thing!  The campus and my excellent departmental colleagues spring immediately to mind! 

6. How do you like to spend your free time outside of work?

Hiking: most recently I’ve completed 90 miles of the Cornish coast path this year so far, following 105 miles of the Devon coast path last year.  Camping: in Cornwall and Iceland so far in 2021.  And cooking – I resumed bread making during lockdown after a >35yr hiatus!