Colin Rowell

PhD Geophysics

NSERC CGSD Scholar, EOAS Climate Emergency Committee member

EOS-Main 302

I study volcanic eruption plumes, and their eventual impact on climate. In particular, I'm interested in the role of water (gas, liquid, and solid) in influencing the physics and chemistry of rising eruption clouds. These properties in turn directly control the ability of volcanic plumes to deliver ash and climate-altering gases to the upper atmosphere. Water is incorporated into volcanic plumes in three distinct ways: as dissolved water already present in magma, as vapour in the ambient atmosphere, or as surface water that comes into contact with erupting magma, such as a lake, ocean, or glacier. We know that volcanic eruptions can have large impacts on global climate - can local climate, particularly the hydrosphere, in turn influence eruption behaviour, creating local or global feedbacks? I aim to understand how the relative amount of water in the plume changes the height and distribution of resulting volcanic clouds. This information is in turn useful in understanding how these clouds will spread in the atmosphere, affecting local populations, air traffic, and global climate.

I approach these questions in a couple of different ways - through both numerical modeling of eruption processes, and through a combination of physics and machine-learning techniques to analyze field data such as ground-based thermal infrared imagery of eruption plumes. Here are some examples of recent projects:

  1.  In analyzing thermal infrared video imagery of ash plumes at Sabancaya Volcano, Peru, I've developed an algorithm that uses spectral clustering (an form of unsupervised machine learning) to track time-evolving turbulent vortices as they rise from the volcanic vent.  Tracking how these vortices evolve in time enables us to understand how time-evolving conditions at the vent influence the behavior of the plume itself as it rises.  This approach is teaching us key principles for interpreting plume behavior in real-time from monitoring data, since many eruptions (and particularly those involving a lot of interaction with surface water!) evolve rapidly between difference eruptive styles.
  2. In the modeling world, I've developed techniques to study the dynamics of erupting jets of ash and steam as the punch through layers of liquid water. This allows us to connect predictions of the plume behavior - both the character of ash particles, water, and sulfur dioxide, and where they are dispersed in the environment - to influences from water abundance in the local surface environment. We showed for example, that the climate impacts of water-rich eruptions are likely to be inherently very different from those of "dry" or purely magmatic eruptions. This rapidly proved to be highly relevant - just weeks before our paper was published in Frontiers of Earth Science, the powerful eruption of the shallow submarine volcano, Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai clearly demonstrated the unusual water and sulfur chemistry of water rich eruption clouds.
  3. Together with my student mentee, Meghan Sharp, we recently used this approach for modeling water-rich eruptions to reconstruct processes of the 1918 subglacial eruption of Katla Volcano, Iceland. We developed a framework for linking the behavior of an eruption plume to the subglacial drainage conditions that govern the transport of meltwater from the eruption site. By constraining our models with the wealth of information provided by eyewitness accounts from this 100-year-old eruption, we were able to link the timing of flood and ashfall hazards to eruption and melting processes as they occurred at the vent, tens of kilometers away from any witnesses.
  4. Prior to arriving at UBC, my background was in acoustics, seismology, and signal processing. During my Master's degree I worked with members of the Alaska Volcano Observatory to understand and interpret the sound waves generated by explosive volcanic eruptions.

Outside of my research roles, I also served as a founding member of the EOAS Department committee responsible for engaging with the UBC Climate Emergency Response plan. 

When I'm not researching volcanic eruptions and volcano-climate interaction, I teach topics in climate science and climate change in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS).

  • In 2020/2021 I was employed as part of a UBC pilot program for interdisciplinary climate teaching, the Climate Teaching Connector, for which I taught climate science and complex systems thinking.
  • In 2019, I co-lectured EOSC 340 Global Climate Change, a flagship course on the science of climate change in the EOAS department.
  • I currently continue as a TA for EOSC 340 Global Climate Change

I also have broad experience as a teaching assistant across a range of earth sciences courses, including:

  • Computational methods for geophysics and geological engineers
  • Data analysis techniques in earth science, including statistics and machine learning
  • Scientific reading and writing
  • Natural disasters
  • Introductory geology and geophysics

Refereed Publications

Rowell, C.R., Jellinek, A.M., Hajimirza, S., Aubry, T.J., in review. External surface water influence on explosive eruption dynamics and column rise, with implications for stratospheric sulfur delivery and volcano-climate feedback, in External Forcing on Volcanoes and Volcanic Processes: Observations, Analysis and Implications. Frontiers in Earth Science.

Aubry, T., Farquharson, J., Rowell, C., Watt, S., Pinel, V., Beckett, F., Fasullo, J., Hopcroft, P., Pyle, D., Schmidt, A., Staunton-Sykes, J., in review. Impact of climate change on volcanic processes: recent progress and future directions. Bulletin of Volcanology.

Rowell, C.R., Fee, D., Szuberla, C.A.L., Arnoult, K., Matoza, R.S., Firstov, P.P., Kim, K., Makhmudov, E., 2014. Three-dimensional volcano-acoustic source localization at Karymsky Volcano, Kamchatka, Russia. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

McKee, K., Fee, D., Rowell, C., Yokoo, A., 2014. Network-based evaluation of the infrasonic source location at Sakurajima Volcano, Japan. Seismological Research Letters.

Non-refereed Articles and Presentations

Rowell, C., Jellinek, M., Gilchrist, J., Tracking time-dependent eruption source unsteadiness and local entrainment in ground-based thermal imagery using spectral-clustering. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. San Francisco, USA. Dec 2020. Poster presentation.

Rowell, C., Jellinek, M., Transient and Unsteady Eruptions at Sabancaya Volcano, Peru. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. San Francisco, USA. Dec 2019. Oral Presentation.

Rowell, C., Jellinek, M., Investigating plume dynamics using ground-based thermal infrared imagery at Sabancaya Volcano, Peru. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Washington DC. Dec 2018. Poster Presentation.

Rowell, C., Glaciation, climate change, and phreatomagmatism: How does plume water content influence sulfur aerosol dispersion and ultimately, climate-forcing? Convective and Volcanic Cloud Training School. Tarquinia, Italy. Oct 2017. Poster Presentation.

Rowell, C., Jellinek, M., Deconstructing the murky world of ground-coupled airwaves
through the dark art of principle component analysis. IAVCEI 2017 General Scientific
Assembly, Portland, OR, USA. Aug 2017. Poster Presentation.

Rowell, C., Cho, D., Mutual, M. How to create mis-ties beneath the Mannville Coals.
GeoConvention 2015, Calgary, Canada. May 2015. Oral Presentation.

Rowell, C., Fee, D., Szuberla, C.A.L., Arnoult, K., Matoza, R.S., Lopez, T., Firstov, P.P.,
Makhmudov, E., Three-dimensional acoustic source localization of explosion and degassing
events at Karymsky Volcano, Kamchatka, Russia. IAVCEI 2013 General Scientific Assembly,
Kagoshima, Japan. July 2013. Poster Presentation.

Rowell, C., Pidlisecky, A., Irving, J., Ferguson, R., Imaging lava tubes using ground penetrating
radar. University of Calgary Undergraduate Research Symposium, Calgary,
Canada. November 2010. Poster Presentation.