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The Science of Predicting Volcanic Eruptions

How volcanic eruptions are predicted, why predicting them accurately is so difficult, and how they may be predicted in the future.

Recently, stories of volcanic eruptions around the world have received widespread news coverage. On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Kilauea volcano has been erupting since early May. During this time period, volcanic activity has destroyed more than 600 homes and has forced thousands to evacuate. The eruption has also knocked out telephone and power lines on the island, causing communications outages (1). Meanwhile, the eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano, which began on June 3, has resulted in 109 confirmed deaths with over 200 people still missing. 1.7 million people in central Guatemala have been affected by the volcanic activity (2).

Although both Kilauea and Fuego have been on volcanologists’ radars, each volcano erupted with little to no warning. Fuego’s quick-moving, pyroclastic flow means that this lack of warning was especially devastating. Guatemala’s national disaster management agency, CONRED, claims that their sensors picked up on increased volcanic activity and they warned communities hours before the eruption. Yet, survivors recall not knowing the volcano was erupting until they saw ash fill the sky and lava spewing down. Many of the victims, unable to escape quickly enough, were killed in their own homes (3).

Considering that an average of 540 people per year are killed by volcanoes and 800 million people live within a 100 km radius of a volcano (4), the fact that predictive technologies have often proven to be inadequate is cause for concern. This raises the question of how volcanic eruptions are predicted and why predicting them accurately is so difficult.

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Photo from Unsplash

The processes that cause an eruption to occur begin deep within the Earth. Magma, which consists of gases, crystals, and molten rock, is formed within the mantle and buoyancy drives it to the Earth’s crust (5). Modern technology is unable to reach the level at which an eruption begins and instead, geoscientists and volcanologists rely on sensors, GPS systems, and satellite radar data to attempt to forecast an eruption.

Sensors can pick up on earthquakes that, on some occasions, give warning that magma is approaching the volcano’s surface. However, because each volcano is so different, these earthquakes are not always indicative of volcanic activity. In addition, GPS systems are used to pick up on swelling in the ground over a volcano, which can indicate that magma is building up near the surface. Satellites are also utilized to measure the gas output of a volcano. Additionally, experts reference the former activity of a particular volcano in order to help forecast its future activity (6).

Although all of these measures can be helpful in predicting an eruption, none of them are exact. There is no standard method for monitoring a potential site of volcanic activity and there are many active or dormant volcanoes that are not heavily monitored. Furthermore, there is still a lot that scientists do not know about volcanoes, including the specific process that triggers a larger volcanic event, which makes it almost impossible to know when a forecasted eruption has the potential to endanger local residents (7).

Many scientists are working towards improving their ability to forecast volcanic eruptions, with the primary goal of saving lives. In January, a study at Brown University explored the potential influence tidal cycles could have on volcanic activity. The aim was to discover a correlation between the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth based on its phase and apply this to effectively predict volcanic eruptions. Although more research has to be done, the research team is hopeful that the method can be used to predict steam-driven volcanic eruptions, which are extremely hard to predict using any other method (8). Another research team at the University of Queensland is exploring the possibility of using high-resolution images of clinopyroxene crystals found near a volcanic site in order to create a timeline of previous volcanic activity. The crystals could also be used to estimate the depth of magma inside of a volcano. The team has discovered that there is a 90% chance a volcano will erupt within a couple of weeks of its magma reaching 30 km below the surface, meaning that knowing the depth of a volcano’s magma could greatly facilitate forecasting an eruption (9).

Experts hope that one day, forecasting a volcanic eruption will be as reliable as forecasting the weather. The hundreds of millions of people who live near a volcano will be able to safely evacuate in the case of an eruption and the loss of lives and valuable assets will be tremendously reduced. With the hard work being undertaken to accomplish this difficult task, this future may one day be a reality.


References

(1) Sylvester, Terray. “Rivers of Lava Destroy 600 Homes on Hawaii’s Big Island: Mayor.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 8 June 2018, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hawaii-volcano/rivers-of-lava-destroy-600-homes-on-hawaiis-big-island-mayor-idUSKCN1J406S.

(2) Reid, Kathryn. “Guatemala Volcano Eruption: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help.” World Vision, 9 June 2018, http://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/guatemala-volcano-eruption-facts.

(3) “Guatemala: Fuego Eruption ‘Cooked People Trapped in Their Homes’.” Al Jazeera News, 9 June 2018, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/06/guatemala-eruption-evacuations-ordered-180609094215576.html.

(4) “Volcanoes Kill 540 People per Year: Study.” New York Post, 12 Oct. 2017, nypost.com/2017/10/12/volcanoes-kill-540-people-per-year-study/.

(5) “About Volcanoes.” U.S. Geological Survey, 14 Dec. 2017, volcanoes.usgs.gov/vhp/about_volcanoes.html.

(6) Griggs, Mary Beth. “Volcanic Eruptions Are Incredibly Hard to Predict. Here’s Why.” Popular Science, 27 Nov. 2017, http://www.popsci.com/predict-volcanic-eruption#page-3.

(7) Basu, Tanya. “It’s Not the Lava That Made Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano Eruption So Deadly.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 4 June 2018, http://www.thedailybeast.com/its-not-the-lava-that-made-guatemalas-fuego-volcano-explosion-so-deadly.

(8) Girona, Társilo, et al. “Sensitivity to Lunar Cycles Prior to the 2007 Eruption of Ruapehu Volcano.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 24 Jan. 2018, http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-19307-z.

(9) Purdy, Chase. “Scientists Are Staring into Crystals to Try and Predict Volcanic Eruptions.” Quartz, Quartz Media, 24 Jan. 2018, qz.com/1188262/volcano-eruption-prediction-methods-scientists-say-crystals-can-tell-when-a-volcano-will-blow/.

Hi! My name is Sophia Simms and I am a rising high school senior from Southern California. I am very interested in STEM, especially in the physical sciences and engineering, and I try to take advantage of every opportunity to learn more. I am grateful to be a part of the TSS team so that I can research topics that interest me and improve my scientific writing skills. I am also a 2018 Questbridge Junior Prep Scholar, a Key Club division news editor, and a member of my school’s varsity tennis team. I am very excited to be a part of this community and I hope to contribute to it in any way that I can.

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