Monday, April 23, 2012

My Beef With a Wired.com Article [Opinion piece]

Recently I happened upon an interesting article (or rant) on Wired.com's Eruptions blog, where the author, Erik Clemetti had challenged readers to describe or otherwise link the technology that would be required to successfully predict an imminent volcanic eruption. You can find my comments in the comments section of the article, but I was immediately like one of those kids who KNOWS the answer to the question in any school class raising his hand "Pick me! Pick me!".

Recently I started looking into what it would take to predict a volcanic eruption. I had seen several National Geographic specials about volcanic eruption prediction, and the pains to which some scientists have gone to make this sort of method or technology a reality. Erik seems to believe that A) No progress has been made and B) that it never will be... Allow me to retort!

First of all, there are some VERY interesting technologies out there to which he might be unaware. One such technology involves using muons (or more specifically, muon detectors). In a recent project undertaken by Japanese scientists, it was shown that placing muon detectors in a 360 degree pattern around a volcano, you can construct a complete 3D image of the volcanoes magma chamber. This technology works by calculating the number of muons flowing through a point in this 3D space to reach its destination. Muons thankfully are formed by the cosmos, so you need no machine, no projector, no generator to produce muons. They fly from all vectors and angles, and continue on uninterrupted until they collide with something (usually something VERY dense like lead, rock, etc). The absence of resistance from the muons travels (ie, the more muons that hit a certain detector at a certain angle) indicates a weak resistance force. This in turn indicates a magma chamber, or void space. This data is then used to create an actual 3D image of the magma chamber... and let me say, I would be skeptical too if I didn't see the tech work on TV. It is now being used to map the chambers of both Mt Shasta in California, and Mt Vesuvius in Sicily.

There are also other very good tell-tale signs that an eruption could be about to occur. Harmonic tremor and long-period events (one in the same really) indicate rising magma underneath the surface. While a recent article about Santorini on MSNBC pointed out that scientists say "90% of the time, magma intrusion does not lead to an eruption", persistent harmonic tremor has preceeded a great many powerful eruptions, most notably (and why harmonic tremor is now considered to be a precursor to an eruption) with a Columbian volcano (Galeras) that erupted, killing many including the volcanologists at the summit), even after the volcanologists had warned that an eruption was imminent. This eruption WAS predicted, and the prediction was ignored.

However, all volcanoes are different. What worked at Galeras does not say, work at Mt Shasta, nor could the same exact method be applied to a great number of volcanoes int he world. Plainly speaking, volcanic eruptions could only be predicted by using specific methods for specific volcanoes, until the day that we have such technology that can predict magma currents in the mantle to the lithosphere with as much accuracy that we do with weather.

Currently, we can tell a volcano is getting ready to erupt by many factors, such as increased harmonic tremor (undetectable without instrumentation most of the time), increased fumerolic or hydrothermal emission, increased SO2 and CO2 emission (indicative of de-gassing magma), deformation (measured via GPS) of the volcano, or frequent volcanic tremors. Couple this with a muon scanner that can tell you if magma is in fact in the chamber... well you have yourself a volcano eruption predicting machine, at least giving you a few days notice before an eruption (speculation, yes, but I imagine quite clearly that this would be one hell of a comprehensive system!).

But do NOT count out human innovation. Using muons to map internal geological structures is not a new idea., and the technologies required to make such a method to predict eruptions might already be available, but simply have not been tied together into the proper medley of technologies so that they are useful to us. If I had to take a wild swing as to when these technologies might be available and in use, I would guess probably 10-20 years from now. It is simply only a matter of time, and innovators are only limited by their imaginations and the materials available. I don't see that being a particular challenge this day and age when open-source collaboration is on an upswing. Just look at the private space travel industry!

In any case, it is my onion that not only can we, as humans, eventually predict eruptions, but the technology is already well underway to do so. So, to the author of Wired, I do appreciate scientific skepticism, but you might want to catch up on the stuff that is already being invented. You might say that scientists are keeping secrets, but I had no trouble in finding information BY SCIENTISTS to the contrary.

What do you think? Post your links to neat geological tech below and let the debate begin! You can see the links to the muon scanners (by the scientists who invented and tested them on volcanoes) below!

http://indico.cern.ch/getFile.py/access?contribId=19&resId=1&materialId=paper&confId=51276 (link to CERN labs explanation of MUONS)

http://www.eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp/yaoki/2010JGR.pdf link to scientific paper by the tech's developers.

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