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Out-of-this-world volcano predictions

Scientists enlist satellites to monitor possible eruptions

A volcano erupts on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland at the end of March. Associated Press/Photo by Marco Di Marco (file)

Out-of-this-world volcano predictions

Scientists with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe they’ve developed a new way to monitor volcanoes around the world. In a report published recently in the journal Nature Geoscience, the JPL scientists describe how to use satellite data to predict volcanic eruptions months or years in advance.

Scientists usually monitor on-the-ground seismic activity and measure changes in the gaseous emissions of a volcano. Those clues sometimes help geologists to predict volcanic eruptions days or weeks ahead of time. But they can only closely monitor so many volcanoes. The JPL team looked for a way to keep an eye on more mountains at once.

The group pored over more than 16 years of satellite data from radiant heat sensors aboard two NASA satellites to measure temperature changes near volcanoes. According to co-author Paul Lundgren, volcanos slowly heat up the ground for many square miles surrounding the crater in the months or years before a volcanic event.

“We’re not talking about hotspots here but, rather, the warming of large areas of the volcanoes,” he said. “So it is likely related to fundamental processes happening at depth.”

There are roughly 1,500 active volcanoes on Earth, including 169 potentially active ones in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists monitor only a fraction of the potentially violent volcanoes, meaning an eruption can happen without much warning. And even closely monitored volcanoes can surprise geologists. An explosion at New Zealand’s carefully watched White Island volcano in 2019 caught scientists and government officials so off guard that 22 tourists who were visiting the crater died.

“Volcanoes are like a box of mixed chocolates: They may look similar, but inside there is a lot of variety between them and, sometimes, even within the same one,” Lundgren said. “On top of that, only a few volcanoes are well monitored, and some of the most potentially hazardous volcanoes are the least frequently eruptive, which means you can’t rely strictly on historical records.”

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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