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EarthChem and Tephra Workshop Teams Create Comprehensive FAIR-based Portal for Tephra Scientists

October 26, 2021

By: Kimberly Mann Bruch

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Tephra is a unique volcanic product that plays an unparalleled role in understanding past eruptions, long-term behavior of volcanoes, and the effects of volcanism on climate and the environment. Tephra deposits provide spatially widespread, extremely high-resolution time-stratigraphic markers across a range of sedimentary settings and are used in a range of disciplines (e.g. volcanology, seismotectonics, climate science, archaeology, ecology, public health and impact assessment). The EarthCube-funded EarthChem team has recently launched a FAIR-based tephra community portal that allows for easier tephra documentation and analysis. Credit: Stephen Kuehn

Scientists often use tephra - ash, cinders and blocks from volcanic eruptions - to describe material explosively erupted from a volcano. However, the study of tephra deposits has long been challenged by a lack of standardization that frequently prevents comparison across geographic regions and between scientific disciplines. This has hindered integrated data archiving, sample documentation, discoverability, and access. 

Fortunately, the EarthCube-funded EarthChem and Tephra 2020 Workshop teams in collaboration with the Throughput project hope to solve this problem with a novel FAIR-based tephra community portal that recently launched. This portal and associated toolkit represent one key implementation of a comprehensive set of  international community-based best-practice guidelines for the study of tephra which has resulted from long-term work by domain experts since 2013.  The tephra-specific portal will facilitate development of a comprehensive database of information about tephra deposits built on EarthChem and SESAR. Mechanisms and instructions for submitting site and sample information, laboratory data, and methods documentation are included, and submitted records can be filtered by geographical locations, data type, authors, keywords, and more. This standardization of data, which is based on FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) Principles, allows scientists to more easily conduct comparisons of data. This is important because research on tephra-producing eruptions for volcanology typically requires assembling information from multiple, potentially widely-dispersed locations. Tephra correlation studies, which are important for providing geochronologies, also require matching geochemical “fingerprints” obtained on multiple samples.

“Analytical method information, which underpins geochemical data, will become easily accessible by using method documentation templates found on this new portal. These templates include general information like method name, instrument type, and laboratory as well as more detailed metadata such as beam current, voltage, beam diameter, and calibrations”, explained Concord University Associate Professor of Geology and Electron Microprobe Laboratory Director Stephen Kuehn. “Our community portal is based on the FAIR Principles and went live a few months ago with templates for IGSN (International Geo Sample Number) registration via SESAR and for analytical methods and geochemical data at EarthChem. Templates for electron microprobe (EMPA) and scanning electron microscope (SEM-EDS) data and methods are fully ready, but we still need to finalize the ones for laser-ablation mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). Method templates allow analytical details to be archived with DOIs, enabling them to become more readily citable, discoverable, and re-usable.”

These portal specifics, described by Kuehn, help to make the new data submission processes more visible and discoverable for users while providing a documented workflow for archiving data. There are wider benefits of the new approach, too. Although the tephra community templates were developed primarily with tephra studies and volcanic glass geochemistry  in mind, they are readily adaptable for use with other sample- and geochemistry-based research.

“One of the things that really struck me while putting data and metadata into the new formats for the portal is the huge amount of manual work that it currently takes to accomplish comprehensive documentation and ideal data submission, although meeting minimum or essential expectations is easier”, said Kuehn. “I realized that what we really require is an end-to-end digital workflow which helps to remove the need for so much manual work. Efforts like the EarthChem tephra portal are helping to develop this streamlined digital ecosystem and will have a huge impact - thanks to National Science Foundation support. Projects like StraboSpot, the Throughput Annotation Engine, and the Sparrow laboratory data management system for geochronology and geochemistry are also helping to build out this ecosystem.”

Kuehn’s mention of StraboSpot refers to the EarthCube-funded field app and database that allows field scientists to digitally describe new sites, collect field data, and document samples. StraboSpot contains another implementation of tephra community best practice recommendations, and it has now been used for example, in two field seasons by the USGS Alaska Volcano Observatory. This tool means that field scientists no longer have to hand write notes, capture separate photos, etc. in the field and then later spend additional time putting that information into a database upon returning to the laboratory or when publishing project data. This makes the workflow more efficient, facilitates better documentation, and can make data FAIR with no additional work by project scientists. Collaboration with the Sparrow project seeks to provide these same benefits for laboratory data.

A description of rationale, benefits, the development process, and implementations of FAIR Principle practices for tephra studies is documented and archived at Zenodo. A poster presented recently at the Geological Society of America meeting also provides an overview of the developing ecosystem which aims to implement these practices across a fully digital workflow for interdisciplinary tephra studies.

A virtual tephra workshop series (funded by NSF award number 1846400), which will include training with the new systems and inform future development, is currently being planned for February 2022. Details will be posted on the tephra community portal this fall.

EarthChem is funded by the National Science Foundation grant number 1948806.

About EarthCube

EarthCube is a community-driven activity sponsored by the National Science Foundation to transform research in the academic geosciences community. EarthCube aims to create a well-connected environment to share data and knowledge in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner, thus accelerating our ability to better understand and predict the Earth’s systems. EarthCube membership is free and open to anyone in the Geosciences, as well as those building platforms to serve the Earth Sciences. The EarthCube Office is led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) on the UC San Diego campus. 


Media Contact: 

Kimberly Mann Bruch, San Diego Supercomputer Center Communications,


Membership Contact:

Lynne Schreiber, San Diego Supercomputer Center EarthCube Office,


Related Links:



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