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Scientists found an interesting way to predict volcano eruptions

Posted May 12, 2019

Predicting volcano eruptions is extremely difficult job even with today’s technology predictions are never very accurate. People and property is in danger of unexpected eruptions and there isn’t much we can do except watching some signs, which often show up very late. Now scientists from the University of Tasmania and their colleagues in France, UK and America pioneer a new method to predict volcano eruptions.

Volcanic eruptions can be predicted by monitoring seismic waves and bulging-contraction cycles. Image credit: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists analysed the case of the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. A lot of data was collected during that event, hoping that it will help scientists to understand lava flows better and will improve predictions of eruptions. Now researchers were able to analyse background vibrations, which were created by lava and ocean waves. Scientists measured tiny changes in the speed of those vibrations. This revealed a dramatic change of the magma plumbing system inside the volcano 10 days before the eruption. In the future this knowledge could help predicting eruptions.

Live volcanoes are always compressing and expanding, reacting to the changes happening beneath the ground. When a volcano is bulging, material is compressed and the frequency of seismic vibration increases. And as it is contracting these wavespeeds decrease. However, as scientists found now, these patterns change days leading to eruption. Scientists found that before the eruption Kilauea volcano was still bulging, but the vibrations were slowing down instead of speeding up as before. Researchers believe that such a dramatic change in the behaviour of the volcano means that eruption is imminent.

Dr Gerrit Olivier, one of the authors of the study, said: “We think that this is a good indicator that the volcano isn’t able to sustain the pressure inside the magma chamber anymore, that the bulge is too big and it starts breaking the material around the magma chamber which ultimately leads to the eruption”.

However, it is still not that easy. These changes have been observed on different volcanoes in the past. But this time researchers were able to prove that these changes occur due to weakening of the material inside the volcano prior to an eruption. Does the same mechanism work on different volcanoes with different contents? Probably not. However, some eruptions could be predicted using this information even if some additional studies are still needed.

The question remains, what do we do if an eruption is predicted? The 2018 Kilauea eruption created 800 million cubic metres of lava flow, which lasted for three months and destroyed 700 houses. At the very least, people can be evacuated and some belongings can be taken away before the chaos starts.


Source: University of Tasmania

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