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A new program predicted a volcanic eruption months before it happened

Using a computer program, a team of researchers was able to predict an eruption five months before it happened.

(CN) — Professor Patricia Gregg of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and her team focused on activity at the Sierra Negra volcano in the Galapagos Islands. Published in Science Advances on Friday, the study reported that the team predicted the volcano's eruption five months before it happened.

The team first developed the program on an iMac computer. They used it to recreation the unexpected eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 2008. In 2017, a report states that the team developed the program on the Blue Waters and iForge supercomputers.

Gregg said that the reason the team decided to study Sierra Negra was because, in the past, was a “well-behaved volcano.” Meaning that before an eruption, the volcano always showed the typical signs such as groundswell, gas release and increased seismic activity.

"Also it has been instrumented with GPS sensors since the mid-2000’s, seismometers in the past few years, and has great satellite coverage," added Gregg.

According to the study, however, forecasting eruptions is challenging.

“As with any natural phenomenon, volcanoes can behave very unpredictably,” wrote Gregg via email. “Unlike forecasting the location of a hurricane’s landfall or the movement of a thunderstorm, we can’t directly observe what is happening in a volcano's magma system. We have to use clues such as how the ground swells around a volcano to build and test models for what might be happening underneath the volcano.”

Thus the importance of the program, which would help the team try to better understand these clues.

During the winter break of 2017-2018, the team reported that they ran their Sierra Negra data through the program. Completed in January 2018, the program provided information about the Sierra Negra’s rock strength. Specifically, according to the study, the fact that the rocks that contain the volcano’s magma would become very unstable between June 25 and July 5 in 2018.

The volcano erupted on June 26, 2018.

The researchers were “floored,” stated Gregg. Furthermore, they believe this shows the potential in using both supercomputers and practical research.

“My research group has been focusing on the scientific aspects of volcano research and particularly what catalysts trigger volcanic eruptions,” wrote Gregg. “By using sophisticated models to forecast volcanic eruption, we are able to better understand volcano behavior and evolution. Hopefully, the advancements we are making will pave the way for providing techniques that monitoring groups can use in the future.”

The team said that this type of study required “a highly multidisciplinary approach” that the team only gained access to once they worked with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

“I think it is good to note that this is the product of over a decade of effort,” wrote Gregg. “Sierra Negra is the first volcano that we have applied our model to in order to produce an actual forecast. However, our previous work at several other volcanic systems put us in an excellent position to take advantage of the opportunity to try out our forecasting technique on Sierra Negra when its unrest accelerated in 2017.”

This program may go a long way in forecasting future eruptions in the coming decades.

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