Royal Society Fellow wins ‘Nobel Prize of earth sciences’

20 January 2015

Professor Stephen Sparks CBE FRS has won the $250,000 Vetlesen Prize. The prize is awarded for scientific achievement resulting in a clearer understanding of the Earth, its history, or its relations to the universe.

Volcanoes can have multiple personalities, peaceful one minute, explosive the next. Professor Sparks, from the University of Bristol, has untangled these complicated states on land and at sea, improving our ability to see deadly eruptions coming.

Among his many achievements, Sparks showed how magma deep within the earth could mix with material closer to the surface to trigger an explosive eruption. Working with physicist Lionel Wilson, he explained how explosions sometimes shoot ash high into the stratosphere, but at other times unleash deadly flows of ash and gas down the flanks of volcanoes. He went on to show in Icelandic volcanoes that the sideways flow of magma could cause the spectacular collapse of a caldera up to 40 miles away. Off the coast of Greece, his analysis of deep-sea volcanic rocks added support for the idea that the Thera eruption around 1500 BC may have influenced the fall of the ancient Minoans on the island of Crete.

Commenting on receiving the prize, Professor Sparks said:

“The Vetlesen Prize celebrates the importance of Earth Sciences. I am thrilled to be the 2015 recipient which recognises research on volcanoes and natural hazards in particular and geology more generally. Modern ideas on volcanoes have emerged by a collective effort of many scientists and it is a privilege to represent this community and indeed to have worked with so many wonderful colleagues and students.

"Volcanic eruptions are the most spectacular natural manifestation of living on a dynamic and changing planet. There are many challenges for Society and the Earth Sciences will play a pivotal role in helping to find solutions to ensure a sustainable and better future.”

In 1978 Sparks published a series of influential papers with mathematician Herbert Huppert on the physics of magma chambers beneath volcanoes. When Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano came to life in 1995, Sparks was picked to head monitoring efforts there and advise the government. More recently, in a 2006 study, Sparks helped model the evolution of earth’s crust in deep 'hot zones' where chemically altered magmas drive volcanism. He has partnered with the mining company BHP Billiton in Chile and DeBeers in South Africa to learn more about the volcanic processes that produce copper and diamond deposits.

Congratulating Professor Sparks on his win, Professor Alex Halliday FRS, Physical Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society said:

"Steve Sparks has, over many years, made many highly original and insightful contributions to our understanding of volcanic eruptions. His research has had a huge impact globally and it is really great to see him and his science recognised in this way." 

Considered the Nobel Prize of the earth sciences, the Vetlesen Prize is supported by the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation and administered by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.