Volcano research shows link between ground deformation and eruption potential

volcano monitoring

Volcano research shows link between ground deformation and eruption potential

InSAR image of volcanic uplift in Africa's Great Rift Valley

InSAR image shows volcanic uplift in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. (Credit: Study authors)

Using satellite imagery to monitor which volcanoes are deforming provides statistical evidence of their eruption potential, according to a new study in Nature Communications.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, launched from French Guiana in April 3, 2014, should allow scientists to test this link in greater detail. Its satellite interferometric synthetic aperture radar – InSAR for short – is a spaceborne imaging technology that will help scientists understand how volcanoes work, according to study co-author and geophysicist Zhong Lu, Shuler-Foscue Chair of geophysics in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College.

Volcano deformation – especially uplift – is often considered to be caused by magma moving or pressurizing underground. Magma rising towards the surface could be a sign of an imminent eruption. On the other hand, many other factors influence volcano deformation, and even if magma is rising, it may stop short rather than erupting.

InSAR technology will eventually help scientists develop a forecast system for all volcanoes, including those that are remote and inaccessible. “InSAR will aid in the prediction of future eruptions,” Lu said. “At SMU, we are developing and applying this technique to track motions of volcanic activities, landslide movements, land subsidence and building stability, among other events.”

Juliet Biggs of the University of Bristol in England led the study. Biggs looked at the archive of satellite data covering more than 500 volcanoes worldwide, many of which have been systematically observed for more than 18 years.

Satellite radar can provide high-resolution maps of deformation, allowing the detection of unrest at many volcanoes that might otherwise go unrecognized. Such satellite data is often the only source of information for remote or inaccessible volcanoes.

The researchers, who included scientists from Cornell University and Oxford University, applied statistical methods more traditionally used for medical diagnostic testing and found that many deforming volcanoes also erupted (46 percent). Together with the very high proportion of non-deforming volcanoes that did not erupt (94 percent), these jointly represent a strong indicator of a volcano’s long-term eruptive potential.

“The findings suggest that satellite radar is the perfect tool to identify volcanic unrest on a regional or global scale and target ground-based monitoring,” Biggs said.

Courtesy of the University of Bristol

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

May 6, 2014|Research|

Research Spotlight: When airplanes and volcanic ash collide

Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruptingFloating ash plumes from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano have caused massive disruption to the world’s air traffic, highlighting the danger that volcanic ash plumes pose to aircraft.

The threat from volcanoes has become more severe as the world’s air traffic has increased, and as more people settle closer to volcanoes, says SMU vulcanologist James Quick, a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College. Quick previously served as program coordinator for the USGS Volcano Hazards Program.

One of the most infamous encounters between a commercial jetliner and a volcanic ash plume took place in 1989. KLM Flight 867, carrying 231 passengers in a Boeing 747, flew into an ash plume after the eruption of Redoubt volcano in Alaska. According to USGS reports, the volcano spewed enormous clouds of ash thousands of miles into the air and nearly caused the airliner to crash.

Captured on audio was the frantic conversation between KLM’s pilot and the Anchorage control tower as the aircraft’s engines began flameout. Hear the cockpit audio in this video, as well as Quick’s comments on the danger.

Volcanic ash plumes can rise to cruise altitudes in a matter of minutes after an eruption, Quick says. Winds carry plumes thousands of miles from the volcanoes and then the plumes are difficult or impossible to distinguish from normal atmospheric clouds.

Worldwide from 1970 to 2000 more than 90 commercial jets have flown into clouds of volcanic ash, causing damage to those aircraft, most notably engine failure, according to airplane maker Boeing.

Volcano monitoring by remote sensing allows USGS scientists to alert the International Civil Aviation Organization’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers as part of ICAO’s International Airways Volcano Watch program. The centers then can issue early warnings of volcanic ash clouds to pilots.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

April 27, 2010|Research|

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.)

Read more from the SMU Research blog

March 2, 2010|Research|
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