Eruption predictor

St Andrews University scientists are to create a device that will help predict when volcanos will erupt.


St Andrews University scientists have been awarded a three year grant for almost £400,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to create a life-saving device to help predict when volcanos wil erupt.


The unmanned monitoring instrument, to be trialled at Montserrat in the West Indies, will be developed by the Millimetre Wave and High-Field ESR Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy.


The new volcano radar project builds on the success of the group’s previous NERC funded project which developed a unique portable volcano mapping instrument ‘AVTIS’ (All-weather Volcano Topography Imaging Sensor).  AVTIS uses millimetre waves to see through the smoke, gas and cloud that frequently cover volcanoes for months at a time to measure the size, shape and temperature of a growing volcanic lava dome.


The Scots team will continue to work with a team of volcanologists from Reading and Lancaster Universities and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) on the new AVTIS project, with the aim of helping MVO provide round the clock coverage of volcanic activity.


‘AVTIS was the first millimetre wave instrument to ever be used on a volcano, proving the concept that a small battery powered radar could be used to map the lava dome from distances of up to six kilometres. We worked on the the lava dome of the volcano at the Soufrière Hills in Montserrat. This type of volcano can change pretty quickly and the local observatory needs to know what is happening up on the mountain on a daily, if not hourly, basis,’ explained Dr David Macfarlane, lead scientist on the project.


AVTIS measured the 3D shape of the lava dome, showing 60 metres growth over a ten day interval as well as gathering thermal images of the dome through thick cloud. The all-weather capability allowed the researchers to monitor the volcano from a safe distance all the time.


‘The first instrument had to be manned, using a laptop computer to control the scanning, and could only operate for about eight hours before the batteries ran out. This new funding will allow us to build an unmanned version that lives on the volcano crater rim with its own power supply, beaming the radar images and data back to the observatory every few minutes using WiFi technology,’ he added.


With constant coverage of the evolving lava dome, the researchers aim to capture the all of the significant activity leading up to an eruption and eventually hope to be able to help predict where and when the volcano might explode.
 
‘In Montserrat, where the instrument will be trialled, people are continuing to be evacuated from their homes as the volcano continues to grow and becomes ever more dangerous, so there is a real need for this technology,’ Macfarlane concluded.