Prediction of volcanic activity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search

Prediction of volcanic eruption (also: volcanic eruption forecasting) is an interdisciplinary monitoring and research effort to predict the time and severity of a volcano's eruption. Of particular importance is the prediction of hazardous eruptions that could lead to catastrophic loss of life, property, and disruption of human activities.

Mount St. Helens erupted explosively on May 18, 1980 at 8:32 a.m. PDT

General Principles[edit]

Various methods including the following sections are used to help predict eruptions. In using these methods, five major principles form the basis of eruption forecasting:

Volcanic eruptions can to date not be predicted by stochastic methods, but only by catching early symptoms before an imminent eruption. Therefore, continuous monitoring even of dormant volcanoes, though costly, is the only way to enable eruptive behavior forecasts. The following sections describe individual groups of methods typically deployed in monitoring volcanoes and the symptomatic evolution of their activity.

Seismic Waves (Seismicity)[edit]

General principles of volcano seismology[edit]

Patterns of seismicity are complex and often difficult to interpret; however, increasing seismic activity is a good indicator of increasing eruption risk, especially if long-period events become dominant and episodes of harmonic tremor appear.

Using a similar method, researchers can detect volcanic eruptions by monitoring infra-sound—sub-audible sound below 20 Hz. The IMS Global Infrasound Network, originally set up to verify compliance with nuclear test ban treaties, has 60 stations around the world that work to detect and locate erupting volcanoes. [1]

Seismic case studies[edit]

A relation between long-period events and imminent volcanic eruptions was first observed in the seismic records of the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. The occurrence of long-period events were then used to predict the 1989 eruption of Mount Redoubt in Alaska and the 1993 eruption of Galeras in Colombia. In December 2000, scientists at the National Center for Prevention of Disasters in Mexico City predicted an eruption within two days at Popocatépetl, on the outskirts of Mexico City. Their prediction used research that had been done by Bernard Chouet, a Swiss volcanologist who was working at the United States Geological Survey and who first observed a relation between long-period events and an imminent eruption.[1][2][3] The government evacuated tens of thousands of people; 48 hours later, the volcano erupted as predicted. It was Popocatépetl's largest eruption for a thousand years, yet no one was hurt.

Iceberg tremors[edit]

It has recently been published that the striking similarities between iceberg tremors, which occur when they run aground, and volcanic tremors may help experts develop a better method for predicting volcanic eruptions. Although icebergs have much simpler structures than volcanoes, they are physically easier to work with. The similarities between volcanic and iceberg tremors include long durations and amplitudes, as well as common shifts in frequencies. (Source: Canadian Geographic "Singing icebergs")

Gas emissions[edit]

Gas and ash plume erupted from Mount Pinatubo, Philippines.

As magma nears the surface and its pressure decreases, gases escape. This process is much like what happens when you open a bottle of fizzy drink and carbon dioxide escapes. Sulphur dioxide is one of the main components of volcanic gases, and increasing amounts of it herald the arrival of increasing amounts of magma near the surface. For example, on May 13, 1991, an increasing amount of sulphur dioxide was released from Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. On May 28, just two weeks later, sulphur dioxide emissions had increased to 5,000 tonnes, ten times the earlier amount. Mount Pinatubo later erupted on June 12, 1991. On several occasions, such as before the Mount Pinatubo eruption and the 1993 Galeras, Colombia eruption, sulphur dioxide emissions have dropped to low levels prior to eruptions. Most scientists believe that this drop in gas levels is caused by the sealing of gas passages by hardened magma. Such an event leads to increased pressure in the volcano's plumbing system and an increased chance of an explosive eruption.

Ground deformation[edit]

Swelling of the volcano signals that magma has accumulated near the surface. Scientists monitoring an active volcano will often measure the tilt of the slope and track changes in the rate of swelling. An increased rate of swelling, especially if accompanied by an increase in sulphur dioxide emissions and harmonic tremors is a high probability sign of an impending event. The deformation of Mount St. Helens prior to the May 18, 1980 eruption was a classic example of deformation, as the north side of the volcano was bulging upwards as magma was building up underneath. Most cases of ground deformation are usually detectable only by sophisticated equipment used by scientists, but they can still predict future eruptions this way. The Hawaiian Volcanoes show significant ground deformation; there is inflation of the ground prior to an eruption and then an obvious deflation post-eruption. This is due to the shallow magma chamber of the Hawaiian Volcanoes; movement of the magma is easily noticed on the ground above.[4]

Thermal monitoring[edit]

Both magma movement, changes in gas release and hydrothermal activity can lead to thermal emissivity changes at the volcano's surface. These can be measured using several techniques:


There are 4 main methods that can be used to predict a volcanic eruption through the use of hydrology:

Remote Sensing[edit]

Remote sensing is the detection by a satellite’s sensors of electromagnetic energy that is absorbed, reflected, radiated or scattered from the surface of a volcano or from its erupted material in an eruption cloud.

Mass movements and mass failures[edit]

Monitoring mass movements and -failures uses techniques lending from seismology (geophones), deformation, and meteorology. Landslides, rock falls, pyroclastic flows, and mud flows (lahars) are example of mass failures of volcanic material before, during, and after eruptions.

The most famous volcanic landslide was probably the failure of a bulge that built up from intruding magma before the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980, this landslide "uncorked" the shallow magmatic intrusion causing catastrophic failure and an unexpected lateral eruption blast. Rock falls often occur during periods of increased deformation and can be a sign of increased activity in absence of instrumental monitoring. Mud flows (lahars) are remobilized hydrated ash deposits from pyroclastic flows and ash fall deposits, moving downslope even at very shallow angles at high speed. Because of their high density they are capable of moving large objects such as loaded logging trucks, houses, bridges, and boulders. Their deposits usually form a second ring of debris fans around volcanic edifices, the inner fan being primary ash deposits. Downstream of the deposition of their finest load, lahars can still pose a sheet flood hazard from the residual water. Lahar deposits can take many months to dry out, until they can be walked on. The hazards derived from lahar activity can exist several years after a large explosive eruption.

A team of US scientists developed a method of predicting lahars. Their method was developed by analyzing rocks on Mt. Rainier in Washington. The warning system depends on noting the differences between fresh rocks and older ones. Fresh rocks are poor conductors of electricity and become hydrothermically altered by water and heat. Therefore, if they know the age of the rocks, and therefore the strength of them, they can predict the pathways of a lahar.[6] A system of Acoustic Flow Monitors (AFM) has also been emplaced on Mount Rainier to analyze ground tremors that could result in a lahar, providing an earlier warning.[7]

Local case studies[edit]


The eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo on January 17, 2002 was predicted a week earlier by a local expert who had been watching the volcanoes for years. He informed the local authorities and a UN survey team was dispatched to the area; however, it was declared safe. Unfortunately, when the volcano erupted, 40% of the city of Goma was destroyed along with many people's livelihoods. The expert claimed that he had noticed small changes in the local relief and had monitored the eruption of a much smaller volcano two years earlier. Since he knew that these two volcanoes were connected by a small fissure, he knew that Mt. Nyiragongo would erupt soon.

Mt. Etna[edit]

British geologists have developed a method of predicting future eruptions of Mt. Etna. They have discovered that there is a time lag of 25 years between eventsmonitoring of deep crust events can help predict accurately what will happen in the years to come. So far they have predicted that between 2007 and 2015, volcanic activity will be half of what it was in 1972.[citation needed]

Sakurajima, Japan[edit]

Sakurajima is possibly one of the most monitored areas on earth. The Sakurajima Volcano lies near Kagoshima City, which has a population of 500,000 people. Both the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) and Kyoto University's Sakurajima Volcanological Observatory (SVO) monitors the volcano's activity. Since 1995, Sakurajima has only erupted from its summit with no release of lava.

Monitoring techniques at Sakurajima:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bernard Chouet (28 March 1996) "Long-period volcano seismicity: its sources and use in eruption forecasting," Nature, vol. 380, no. 6572, pages 309-316.
  2. ^ Interview with Bernard Chouet regarding his research into long-period events and volcanic eruptions: .
  3. ^ U.S. TV program on use of long-period events to predict volcanic eruptions: "Nova: Volcano's Deadly Warning": . See also "Volcano Hell" episode of BBC TV series "Horizon" on same subject: .
  4. ^ Modeling Crustal Deformation Near Active Faults and Volcanic Centers: A Catalog of Deformation Models United States Geological Survey
  5. ^ Houlié, N., J.C. Komorowski, M. de Michele, M. Kasereka, H. Ciraba, Early detection of eruptive dykes revealed by Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) on high-resolution satellite imagery, 246, 3-4, 231-240, Earth Planetary Science Letters, 10.1016/j.epsl.2006.03.039,link to paper (2006).
  6. ^ Kirby, Alex (January 31, 2001). "Early warning for volcanic mudslides". BBC. Retrieved 2008-09-20. 
  7. ^ Staff. "WSSPC Awards in Excellence 2003 Award Recipients". Western States Seismic Policy Council. Retrieved 2008-09-03. [dead link]

External links[edit]