Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Volcanic Monitoring Tech Under Development

Scientists are close to deploying en masse a new technology that could greatly improve our knowledge about the inner workings of volcanoes, possibly leading to a method in the future to determine how, when, and for how long an eruption might occur. Last night on PBS (here in the States), Nova produced an excellent show about volcanoes and what is being invented to monitor them properly. This is a two fold solution to a problem that has vexed mankind since our earliest days on the planet.

First, there are many technologies that can 'map' a volcanoes inner workings. The most common is seismic monitoring through low-velocity zones. What happens here is that deep earthquakes around a volcano (such as Yellowstone) are recorded by multiple instruments around the area. The data is timed so that computers can analyze exactly how fast, and at what portions, the waveforms slow down, or travel unimpeded through the crust. A slower wave form denotes molten, or semi-molten rock. This is called a low-velocity zone, and computers can now produce rather accurate images of underground magma chambers, which was recently done to Yellowstone.

But a far greater technology is in the works, and one that will not require thousands of seismic recorders, and is independent of earthquake data. Cosmic rays have been observed to produce particles called muons. Muons travel at near light speed, can easily travel through objects such as mountains, buildings... us. Scientists have figured out a way to place muon sensors around a volcanic summit to not only map the inner magma tube that feeds volcanic summits, but can tell where the magma is, at what pressure, and produce a very detailed 3D image of the inside 'guts' of a volcano.

This technology coupled with seismic extrapolation of underground magma reservoirs will GREATLY reduce inaccuracies in predicting or assessing eruption risks. This technology is now currently being used on Italy's Mount Vesuvius, which most scientists agree is currently the worlds most potentially lethal volcano, with a large population (in the millions) living around its base. Vesuvius is most famous for the 79AD eruption that destroyed the town of Pompeii, but it has had many many eruptions in the last 2000 years. It erupted during WWII, and again in the 1960's in recent history, but has since been oddly quiet.

The second volcano to be monitored is another potential killer. Mount Shasta on the West Coast of the US is a silent monster, looming over the Washington state skyline like an American Mt. Fuji, it is structurally weak, and has a record of historical activity. The main threat from this volcano is flank collapse that would result in landslides and lahars, however elevated thermal temperatures and chemicals in surrounding creeks suggest that the volcano is also slowly heating up. Nova pointed out that the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 was preceded by reports of discolored and high temperature river water weeks and months before the actual eruption. This has prompted the muon analyzing tech to be deployed around Shasta to get the real story on what's going on.

In any case, the technology for volcanic monitoring and prediction is improving by leaps and bounds as technology improves day by day. It is entirely possible that with these combinations of technology that getting caught off guard by a volcano erupting may soon be a thing of the past... at least for countries that can afford the investment. Areas that are remote, and inconsequential to humans, like the Aleutian Island volcanoes of Alaska, would probably be a low priority area for deploying this technology. However urban centers near these volcanoes would certainly benefit.

If you weren't able to see this Nova presentation last night, I'd see if you can find it online, or maybe order it from PBS. It was a great special, and brings a lot of food for thought.

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