Predicting the eruptions of unrestful volcanos

Saturday, 20 September, 2014
Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict. Ground-breaking research by EU-funded scientists on the signs of volcanic unrest aims to improve eruption forecasts. Their work on the best ways to communicate such alerts could also help save lives.
Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat and Plymouth, the island’s devastated former capitol.

Exhalations of sulphuric gas, wisps of expelled ash, shifts of earth, rumbles and other such signs of volcanic unrest can last for days and even years before an actual eruption, if one happens at all.

Volcanologists need to be able to interpret these signs to be able to forecast whether an eruption is likely to occur. But the historical data they need is often incomplete or lacking altogether.

The EU-funded project VUELCO is helping. Its researchers have completed a study on six volcanoes in Europe and around the world. The study has led to a database on volcanic unrest and better forecasting models, says VUELCO’s scientific coordinator Joachim Gottsmann of the University of Bristol.

In parallel, the project team is developing ways to improve communication between volcanologists and civil protection authorities. The aim is to help local communities understand scientific advice on a possible crisis and take the appropriate actions.

Signs of unrest

“Our knowledge of the links between volcanic processes on the Earth’s subsurface, resulting signals of unrest and imminent eruption is, today, inadequate,” says Gottsmann.

To fill in some of these gaps VUELCO analysed the scientific data for Campi Flegrei in Italy, Cotopaxi in Ecuador, Morne aux Diables in Dominica, Popocatépetl in Mexico, Soufrière Hills in Montserrat and Teide in Tenerife. The six are representative of the range of volcanoes currently active around the world.

The team advanced global understanding of the processes near the Earth’s surface that can trigger volcanic unrest. Along with creating a database on volcanic unrest, the project has developed new mathematical and laboratory models to aid forecasting.

With these results in hand VUELCO is leading the ongoing international development of common standards for recording data on volcanic unrest.  Common standards would help volcanologists compare data from volcanoes in different countries – leading to better forecasting.

Better communication

Through four simulation exercises VUELCO is drafting guidelines to help volcanologists effectively communicate scientific knowledge such as the likelihood of an eruption to local communities and civil protection authorities.

The first exercise was held at Mexico’s Fuego de Colima volcano in 2012.  After evaluating an unrest scenario volcanologists then communicated alerts to participating civil authorities and emergency teams. These then simulated a reaction based on the scientific advice provided, and on 24 November evacuated 400 people from 2 villages as a test.

The simulation made it clear volcanologists need to improve the way they communicate scientific advice, says Gottsmann. For example, problems occurred due to the terms used and how to interpret scientific uncertainty.

“It became blatantly clear that scientists need to know more about their customers’ needs,” he adds.

Based on the simulation, the researchers have drafted communication guidelines and pinpointed areas for further testing. These were refined at a second simulation exercise held at Italy’s Campi Flegrei volcano near Naples, Italy in February 2014.  

A third simulation will be in Ecuador by the end of 2014, and a final one in Dominica in 2015. The researchers are also creating a blueprint to guide scientists and emergency response teams when conducting similar simulations.

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International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction - 8 October 2014

Volcanic unrest in Europe and Latin America: Phenomenology, eruption precursors, hazard forecast, and risk mitigation
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