A group of scientists say they have developed a method for predicting volcanic eruptions using satellite data.

If their work progresses, they say scientists will be able to forecast eruptions just as meteorologists forecast the weather today. This could be especially useful for creating early warning systems and evacuation plans for towns and cities situated near volcanoes.

Researchers from the University of Savoy, Mont Blanc in France studied satellite radar data of volcanoes for clues they were about to erupt, and used the data to build a model for forecasting similar to those meteorologists used to forecast weather.

They published results of their work Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science.

Active volcanoes have pools of molten rock inside of them called magma chambers. Magma and gases can build up in this magma chamber until they reach a state of “overpressure.” If that pressure exceeds a certain point, the volcano erupts.

“Imagine it is like a balloon that is continuously filled by air,” said lead researcher Grace Bato, researcher at the the University of Savoy’s Institute of Earth Sciences (ISTerre). As magma builds up beneath a volcano, it causes the ground above to swell and change shape.

They can measure this movement of the ground using GPS and radar satellite data, Bato said.

“Based on this we can infer how much excess pressure there is beneath the volcano,” she said. “At some point, there is a critical threshold — an overpressure value — and if this is reached we can say there is a probability that the volcano may erupt soon.”

Bato said that while the data assimilation methods her team used are popular with meteorologists, they have been tougher to apply to volcanoes. There is far less data on volcanoes, and there are different types of volcanoes.

At first, the team used computer simulations to build their model, but Bato said they are now studying testing the model on the Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland and the Okmok volcano in Alaska.

“In our community, we are just at the beginning of establishing more realistic models,” she said, but if they can learn enough about volcanoes, they may be able to get precise forecasts of when a volcano is about to erupt.

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