Research Spotlight: Listening for volcanoes

James E. Quick on Anatahan, Northern Mariana IslandsTechnology designed to detect nuclear explosions and enforce the nuclear test-ban treaty now will be used to monitor active volcanoes in the Mariana Islands near Guam. The island of Guam soon will be the primary base for forward deployment of U.S. military forces in the Western Pacific.

The two-year, $250,000 project teaming SMU with the U.S. Geological Survey will use infrasound – in addition to more conventional seismic monitoring – to “listen” for signs a volcano is about to blow. The plan is to beef up monitoring of lava and ash hazards in the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The archipelago’s active volcanoes threaten not only residents of the island chain and the U.S. military, but also passenger airlines and cargo ships. The USGS project calls for installing infrasound devices alongside more traditional volcano monitoring equipment – seismometers and global positioning systems.

Scientists at SMU, which the USGS named the prime cooperator on the project, will install the equipment and then monitor the output via remote sensing. The project is a scientific partnership of the USGS, SMU and the Marianas government.

Infrasound hasn’t been widely used to monitor volcanoes, according to noted volcano expert and SMU geology professor James E. Quick, who is project chief. Infrasound can’t replace seismometers but may help scientists interpret volcanic signals, said Quick, who also serves as the University’s associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies.

“This is an experiment to see how much information we can coax out of the infrasound signal,” he said. “My hope is that we’ll see some distinctive signals in the infrasound that will allow us to discriminate the different kinds of eruptive styles – from effusive events that produce lava flows, or small explosive events we call vulcanian eruptions, to the large ‘Plinian’ events of particular concern to aviation. They are certain to have some characteristic sonic signature.”

(Above, SMU’s James E. Quick on Anatahan, one of the nine islands in the Northern Mariana archipelago with active volcanoes.)

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About Kathleen Tibbetts

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