UMaine collaborates to create standards for volcanic tephra collection, measurements and reporting – A. Kurbatov

The scientific community now has a standard set of protocols for collecting data about volcanic ash known as tephra, thanks to an international team of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Maine and various institutions across the country.

Tephra is any airborne material produced by an explosive volcanic eruption that plays an essential role in understanding past volcanism and its impact on climate and the environment. Tephra deposits also provide spatially widespread, high-resolution time-stratigraphic markers across a range of sedimentary settings and thus are used in numerous disciplines, from climate science to archaeology.

However, the study of tephra deposits is challenged by a lack of standardization that inhibits data integration across geographic regions and disciplines.

In a study published in July 2022 in the journal Nature Scientific Data, researchers designed a framework for tephra data gathering and reporting to guide future investigators. Andrei Kurbatov, co-author of the study and associate professor at the Climate Change Institute and the School of Earth and Climate Sciences, said that the team was inspired by the work of geologists George Patrick Leonard Walker and Ron Croasdale, whose tephra dataset published in 1971 is still usable today because of its comprehensive nature.

The researchers developed six workbooks, which together comprise the best-practice recommendations. The workbooks are carefully constructed to ensure collection of at least the most essential data as well as to outlining optimal, ideal or best-practice data collection. Each workbook targets a different research area, from collecting and documenting data and samples in the field, to processing and preparing samples for multiple types of laboratory analysis and reporting the data, methods and results.

Kristi Wallace, first author of the study and U.S. Geological Survey geologist, says the team was motivated to establish these standards “at the bequest of the global tephra community who needs a solution for making tephra data interoperable amongst the myriad of research disciplines who collect tephra as part of their work.”

No single dataset is expected to incorporate all the best-practice recommendations because of the varied nature of real-world tephra studies, but the standardized framework aims to promote consistent documentation and archiving while fostering interdisciplinary communication and effectiveness of data sharing.

“We hope that new guidelines and data sharing approaches will foster a future generation of research that needs access to global and properly documented tephra data,” Kurbatov says.