Scientists Closer to Predicting Volcano Eruptions

volcano monitoring

Measuring gas emissions is key to predicting volcanic eruptions. (Photo credit: Konstantina Sidiropoulou/Alamy Stock Photo)

Every month, an average of 40 volcanoes erupt on land into the atmosphere, and hundreds of others on the seafloor erupt into the ocean. Predicting when these eruptions will occur is nearly impossible. Scientists associated with the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) and Deep Earth Carbon Degassing (DECADE) initiative are setting the stage to make accurate volcanic eruption forecasts a reality.

“We are deploying automated monitoring stations at volcanoes around the world to measure the gases they emit,” Tobias Fischer, a volcanologist at the University of New Mexico and leader of DECADE, said in a press release about the program. “We measure carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor, the major gases emitted by all volcanoes on the planet. In the hours before an eruption, we see consistent changes in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted relative to sulfur dioxide. Keeping an eye on the ratios globally via satellites and on-site monitoring helps us learn the precursors of volcanic eruptions. Monitoring these volcanic gas variations also helps us come up with a more accurate estimate of total volcanic carbon dioxide emissions on Earth–a major goal of DCO.”

Researchers with the DCO hope to deploy gas sensors on 15 of the world’s 150 most active volcanoes by 2019. The sensors are placed in large boxes and buried underground with antennae that poke out aboveground. As technology has improved, these devices have become more precise and more affordable.

As magma rises within a volcano, the resulting release of pressure releases gases dissolved within the magma. Carbon dioxide is the first gas to be emitted by a volcano and as the magma moves higher, sulfur dioxide is released. Scientists can use the ratio of carbon dioxide to sulfur dioxide to calculate how close the magma is to the surface of the volcano and subsequently determine when the volcano might erupt.

DCO scientists at England’s University of Cambridge are also using satellites to monitor volcanic activity on a global scale.

“While water vapor and carbon dioxide are much more abundant volcanic gases, sulfur dioxide is easier to measure because Earth’s atmosphere contains very little sulfur dioxide,” Marie Edmonds, co-Chair of DCO’s Reservoirs and Fluxes Science Community, said in a press release about the research. “With satellites, we have been able to measure sulfur dioxide emissions for years and the technology keeps getting better. An exciting new aspect of DCO’s research combines the satellite data with ground-based measurements of carbon to sulfur ratios provided by DECADE. This powerful combination allows us to better define global volcanic emissions, or degassing, of carbon dioxide.”

“DECADE’s volcano-based instruments make it possible for us to ground-truth our satellite observations and obtain much more frequent measurements” Edmonds said. “Eventually we hope we’ll get as accurate measurements from space as we do from the ground. When this happens, we can monitor volcanoes in remote parts of the world for a fraction of the cost and without risking scientists’ lives.”

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