2019 Rolex Awards Associate Laureate

Yves Moussallam

French volcanologist Yves Moussallam wants to shed light on a great scientific unknown: how the gases and aerosols emitted by the Earth’s 150-plus active volcanoes are affecting climate change.

“Volcanoes have shaped our planet and its atmosphere over aeons. Collecting real-time data on volcanic activity in the most remote places on Earth is key to a true understanding of their role in accelerating or masking climate change,” he says. “Satellite data indicates that a third of all the world’s volcanic gases originate from Melanesian volcanoes, but until now most sampling has taken place at accessible volcanoes in developed countries.”

Moussallam wants to remedy this huge gap in the science by mounting an expedition to study 17 of the 76 most active surface and undersea volcanoes along a 5,000-kilometre arc of the world’s most volcanically dynamic region, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.

I’m measuring volcanic gases to understand better the effect of volcanic emissions on our atmosphere.

Yves Moussallam

The expedition will mix science and Pacific cultural heritage with plain practicality. Moussallam and his team will set sail in a vaka, a traditional Polynesian vessel. Not only is it environmentally friendly, a vaka can moor anywhere in the islands. From there, the team will deploy state-of-the-art aerial drones, undersea robots and advanced sensors to analyse the gases produced by volcanoes found between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Moussallam, who is aged 31, also hopes to supply the islanders with improved early-warning systems for volcanic eruptions.

He and his team plan to share their discoveries and raise awareness that, in science, adventure and exploration of new worlds are still possible.