Geology And Geophysics

Progress toward Predicting Volcanic Eruptions

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"Progress toward Predicting Volcanic Eruptions"
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There is growing concern among scientists and Volcanologists (not to mention civilian populations) about the heavy population density that surrounds a great many active and dormant volcanoes throughout the world. These same scientists and Volcanologists are laboring mightily in their attempts on accurately predicting volcanic eruptions in the hope of saving lives.

One of world’s most famous and dangerous volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius and is less than 16 miles southeast of the million or so residents of Naples, Italy. Another 25,000 or so more people live and work in Pompeii and are only 6 miles south of it. And Pompeii attracts 2.5 million tourists every year – mostly because of Vesuvius. There are several towns and villages who are on the very slopes of this known killer.

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, millions of people live in an area where there are no fewer than 2 dozen active and dormant volcanoes – including Mount Hood, and Mount Rainier.

And this scenario is repeated in Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand and other places around the world.

A major eruption in one of these heavily-populate areas could cause a disaster approaching Biblical proportions.

Predicting when a volcano is going to blow its top is currently not as exact a science as Volcanologists would hope. Analyzing data from volcanoes is still much easier “after the fact” than it is before the fact. But lessons are being learned – albeit much slower than would be liked.

Compounding the problem is the fact that not all volcanoes operate under the same set of “rules”. They are all unique and have different patterns of events when studying their histories. Some, who haven’t erupted in recorded history (like the huge caldera in Yellowstone National Park), have no established eruption patterns to analyze, only potential clues.

The science of predicting revolves around the monitoring of volcano “vital signs”. Instruments are used that track the rise of magma, seismic activity, and various types of gaseous emissions. Even the tilt of the volcano is analyzed.

And these vital sign patterns can change at any moment.

But despite all of this, Volcanologists have been getting better with their predictions over the past several decades. However, successful predictions have only provided hours or at best a few days warning. And even though this is progress, consider how much time it would take to evacuate cities such as Naples, or even the much smaller Pompeii. Days-to-weeks’ notice is needed here, not hours-to-days. And where would these people go, and how far would they have to go? How would they be taken care of?

It is hoped that new technology such as GPS (Geographical Positioning Satellites) will help with predictions. A dedicated GPS can continually monitor even the smallest volcano deformation and changes of shape. Weather satellites are also being used to track the path of volcanic plumes after eruption.

As far as the “death by volcano” factor is concerned, it’s not necessarily the size of the eruption that matters it’s the type of eruption that matters even more. This also has to be part of the prediction.

The science is growing and getting better but it’s a race against time. And the clock is ticking for some of these places.

More about this author: James Vigh

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