Using satellites to get a closer look at erupting volcanoes
A European Union (EU)-funded project has developed a new satellite-based system to collect and disseminate information on volcanoes worldwide. Monitoring and studying active volcanoes on the ground can be difficult, dangerous or even impossible, particularly during an eruption. Without these accurate, real-time measurements, scientists cannot fully assess the hazards posed by lava flows and clouds of gases and ash.
EVOSS – or European Volcano Observatory Space Services – has assembled the first-ever system that uses satellites to automatically detect and monitor erupting volcanoes worldwide. The system is expected to give disaster officials key information for response, and researchers a clearer idea of the impact of any eruption anywhere in the world. EVOSS is already operational in Europe, Africa and volcanic islands in the surrounding oceans.
The system is a significant breakthrough, considering that nearly 95 percent of the world’s volcanoes are not monitored on the ground. Even where monitoring stations and equipment – or volcano ‘observatories’ – have been built, they are not always in a position to efficiently monitor an eruption.
“It can be difficult to measure volcanoes on the ground. You have to position measuring devices in advance, but one problem is that you do not know exactly where the lava will come out,” says EVOSS co-coordinator Steve Tait of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), one of the partners in the project.
“The philosophy of EVOSS is to look everywhere all the time. An erupting volcano is always going to be seen from space,” he adds.
According to Tait, instruments on the ground can be damaged by a volcano, especially during large or violent eruptions. “This is where a space-based system can provide backup or even take over,” explains Tait.
The EVOSS system measures eruptions in three ways: the heat coming from a volcano, the ash and gases being emitted, and the physical changes being made to the Earth’s surface. These readings can help scientists better anticipate how a volcano is likely to behave in the future – for example, whether activity is ramping up or ramping down.
EVOSS’ information-gathering system can help communities in places such as the site of Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamulagira that are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nyiragongo, which erupted in 1977 and 2002, has a permanent lake of lava that represents a constant potential threat to the DRC city of Goma 2,000 metres below. Since effective ground-based monitoring of the volcano is not currently possible, Tait says that “the EVOSS system may be able to help emergency crews and local communities if Nyiragongo erupts again.”
Since it was launched in 2010, the EVOSS system has accurately detected and measured dozens of eruptions in Europe, Africa and various islands including the Lesser Antilles. The measurements were then reported in real-time on the EVOSS user portal.
Although the EU-funded portion of the project has ended, the EVOSS system is now being operated voluntarily in real-time to provide data on thermal, gas and ash emissions. “The service is currently free of charge,” says EVOSS project co-coordinator Fabrizio Ferrucci of the IPGP,”although a subscription system may be developed to help ensure its sustainability.