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48. Volcanic Eruption Detection - Nifty 50

Erupting volcano

Volcanoes are the link between the deep earth, the air we breathe and the water we drink, yet eruptions occur irregularly.

There are also real volcanic hazards on many scales. For all of these reasons, improved understanding of volcanic processes is vital.

Volcanologists are learning to evaluate physical changes to volcanic domes or edifices as an indicator of impending activity.

Predicting changes

With improved Earth-based and space-platform technologies, they can now measure small changes in temperature and composition of gases escaping from the Earth into the atmosphere, as well as detect minor deformations of the volcano and seismic activity; both indicate magma moving closer to the surface.

In some cases, such as Montserrat over the past few years, this information has enabled accurate forecasting of explosive events and times of increased hazard. This information helps to protect scientific field workers and the general public.

Volcano research

NSF has funded the development of some of these technologies and their applications to active volcanoes in Hawaii, the western U.S.A. and Alaska, as well as the Philippines, Indonesia, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

NSF is also funding research designed to discover new information on magma movement, eruption dynamics and warning signals, lava and ash composition, volcanic emissions and eruption-triggered avalanches and mudflows.

The data and improved understanding derived from this research will be important to monitoring, eruption detection and forecasting and improving hazard assessment in order to reduce volcanic risk to the U.S.A. and our neighbors abroad.

Real-time detection

Since 1993, NSF-funded scientists have been able to detect volcanic eruptions on the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast of Washington and Oregon. Researchers investigated three eruptions within days or weeks of the event.

By using devices called Navy hydrophone arrays, oceanographers can monitor in real time volcanic eruptions on the ridge. This real-time detection of volcanic events allows scientists to study processes taking place near and on mid-ocean ridges.

Underwater volcanic eruptions precipitate a dynamic series of reactions between water and rock, and by creating an opening in the seafloor, they provide a way to obtain samples from microbes recently found living in the seabed.

Deep-sea environments

Research in deep-sea animal environments led to the discovery that mid-ocean ridges support abundant and diverse microbial and animal communities in the absence of sunlight, and that these communities extend from the seafloor deep into the crust.

Some of the microbes sampled thrive at temperatures in excess of 212-degrees Fahrenheit. They may have important uses in biotechnology and may lead to an understanding of the origin of life on this and other planets.

Original publication date: April 2000

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