Dr Juliet Biggs

"Chasing and waiting for a volcano can produce some very good science but it’s not the only science you can do. Satellite technology has to be truly global in helping us to understand the world around us; we need to be able to apply it to the whole world if it’s really going to become useful."

Dr Juliet Biggs is an award-winning geologist who joined Bristol University in 2010.

In 2012, she received the Royal Astronomical Society’s Winton Capital Award for Geophysics for making an outstanding contribution to astronomy during her PhD, which she completed in 2007 and during which time she pioneered a new method for determining strain around faults using satellite technology in the challenging area of the Denali Fault in Alaska.

Juliet has collaborated with scientists at more than 25 institutions to date, investigating active tectonic processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes across the world, from Alaska to Ethiopia.

I’ve always liked science. My parents were both academic mathematicians but I never got very excited about anything to do with maths. Whenever we went anywhere, though, I used to love going to see anything to do with engineering, and the launch pad at the Science Museum in London used to be one of my favourite places. I definitely didn’t want to do what my parents did, because that’s already been done in my family. I enjoy working with numbers and data but I’m just not that fascinated by why it works, I’m just happy that it does and what it can tell us about other things.

I use satellite technology to explore the Earth. The satellites put out radar beams and record what comes back again. By looking at the phase shift of the radar beam it tells us something about how much the ground has moved.

So we can measure across huge areas, continental scales, and measure at very, very high resolution how much the ground is moving down to just a few centimetres or a few millimetres. This is relatively new technology and I use it for looking at active tectonics in volcanoes.

So if a large earthquake happens we can use the radar technology to tell us how much the ground has moved – in the case of some of the larger earthquakes that can be up to 10 meters, in the case of some of the smaller earthquakes it might only be a few centimetres.

It’s a very opportunistic field in the sense that a lot of things we do are based on current events, so if a volcano erupts or an earthquake happens that triggers a rush to go and understand what caused it and what we can learn from this event. But actually one of the things that I like to do is try and understand some of these big picture scientific questions – what happens with volcanoes that nobody is studying?

We’ve been particularly successful in looking at volcanoes in East Africa, where there’s a whole string of volcanoes that have no historical eruptions, yet there are large populations nearby, like in Addis Ababa and Nairobi. No-one’s monitoring these volcanoes, no-one’s even going there, yet when you go there you see that a lot of the erupted material was quite recent, so there have been historical eruptions - it’s just that there are no written records to document this.

Using this satellite technology we’ve found that a surprising number of these volcanos are showing signs of unrest, what we don’t understand yet is whether these are signs that they are going to necessarily erupt or if it’s something else, so we’re doing a lot of work to show what the underlying causes are, but it definitely shows that they are not as dormant as people thought.

Chasing and waiting [for a volcano] can produce some very good science but it’s not the only science you can do, and actually everybody else is out there doing it too. It doesn’t take much imagination to churn out another one of these papers, on another one of these events, so I like to try and think outside the box and work out what else we can use this technology for.

I have worked hard to get a lot of information about the Tropics, which typically is a very difficult region for using this technology; it doesn’t do very well with dense vegetation. It works brilliantly in cities and dessert environments, where the land is very dry and stable, but if the land surface is vegetated and moving around all the time that confuses the signal.

I don’t’ see the point of having a technology that can only be used in California or Iran and places like that. This needs to be a global technology, we need to be able to apply this to the whole world if it’s really going to become useful.

I was never motivated by understanding very small particles or the origins of the universe, I wanted something a bit more practical. This is a good blend of using all the sciences to answer those big picture questions but it’s also got really strong practical applications to help understand things about the world around us. I was very lucky to get a summer internship after my first year, I worked in Southampton with Bramley Murton, and he sent me on a research cruise.

We did some really interesting work and ended up publishing a paper together on that, which was a fantastic experience, especially for an undergraduate – I got to play with some amazing equipment in a lab, and I got to go on a cruise and think about interesting things, and that’s what gave me the motivation to switch and do Earth sciences. I then spent a summer in California where I worked on a project to do with satellite data, and I realised there was a real future in what I was doing, so I kept on at it.

It takes imagination to work in this field. A lot of people come from an engineering background so they have the technical skills but they don’t think about the science. While some people come from the science side of things and don’t have the technical skills to develop new processes.

Coming from both sides – I’m not an engineer or a technical expert, but I can develop algorithms to pull complicated things out of the data, and I have enough of an understanding about the science to think of new and exciting places to look – it means I’m certainly not running short of ideas!

I’ve been to so many places and met so many people by doing this so it’s important to me to get involved in the communities that we work with. In Latin America and East Africa, where there aren’t a lot of resources, it’s especially important.

There are hundreds of people working in California so I could have just been one of a herd, which I didn’t want to be. Whereas these are places where a lot of people haven’t bothered looking and there’s a real demand for this technology and how it can inform people.

For instance, in Colombia and Ecuador where they’ve had a lot of eruptions and the issue is very politically charged but because they’re trying to monitor the volcano, means they have a much lower uptake on new technology. So we don’t know yet how to use this technology to predict the likelihood of eruptions.

But what they’re interested in is the fact that you can use this technology to track what’s happening in areas where you can’t actually travel – say war zones or difficult environments where nobody would go, and there would otherwise be no way of affording to do that either.

One of the major issues right now is using satellites for natural hazards; what can modern satellite technology tell us about the Earth around us? I went to a volcano site in Ethiopia and walked around it and couldn’t see anything but from space you can see this volcano is inflating and deflating; I find that really remarkable that modern technology is telling us something that we can’t tell from being on the ground.

Not enough people are aware of how active the Earth is around us, and that’s why modern technology is so important as it can really give us that global overview. With a lot of the ground based stuff you have to know that there is something to measure.

With this technology, we can just look at the whole world and see how the Earth is moving around us. We can look at earthquakes and volcanoes but also mine collapses, subsidence from aquifer draining – the world around us is changing through manmade processes as well as natural hazards, and we can use satellite technology to tell us this.”

Dr Juliet Biggs, Lecturer, School of Earth Sciences

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Watch Juliet discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Can science save us?

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