Scientists Test Method for Predicting Where Volcanoes Will Erupt

Lava erupts from a fissure in the Leilani Estates neighborhood near Pahoa on the island of Hawaii on May 24, 2018. (Grace Simoneau/FEMA via AP)

(CN) – Researchers say they may have found a new way to monitor one of the most unpredictable and dangerous aspects of volcano eruptions – where and how magma will flow.

The study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, examined the history of volcano eruptions to understand how scientists went about forecasting their activity. One of the difficulties of predicting volcano activity is that so many volcanoes do not erupt from the top central cavity, but instead erupt from the side.

Side eruption stems from underground pressure releasing at places where the volcano’s surrounding rock has become fractured, and is often be disastrous and unforeseeable. This kind of magma made the Kilauea eruption on the island of Hawaii in August 2018 so challenging for local communities.

Eleonora Rivalta, co-lead author of the study and physicist at FZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, and her team came up with a process that allows scientists to predict how and when eruptions at a volcano’s flanks will take place. The process uses geographic data to map paths of least resistance for underground magma flow, often several miles away from the volcano, and inputs potential paths into a statistical model.

Researchers believe the new strategy will lead to a much more accurate prediction of lava and magma flow. Rivalta hopes their work will be received well enough in the academic community so they can turn these findings into more tangible solutions.

“If the response is good, we will receive collaboration and will be encouraged to proceed preparing proper hazard maps (hopefully more performant than those already available) for many volcanoes, and improving our software and procedures so that other volcanologists will be able to use them independently,” Rivalta said in an email.

Rivalta also hopes the new research will help to improve the public’s awareness on the dangers of volcanoes and the importance of being able to predict eruptions.

“This study will lead to a better understanding that many eruptions occur on the volcano flank, potentially quite low on the flank depending on the volcano. This will augment the awareness and potential of self-determination of populations,” Rivalta said.

“In the same way that people in California check the resistance of a building to an earthquake and check the potential for liquefaction on maps before they buy a house, people near volcanoes will know they have one more element to judge when they want to rent or buy a property and to be less surprised and shocked and more prepared in case something happens.”

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