Friday, 12 October 2012

How are volcanoes monitored?

Below is a report by B.Slawinski, a year 10 pupil on his research into how volcanoes are monitored. It covers overall types with their individual details very well.

There are many different ways and techniques to monitor volcanoes, they are; seismicity, ground deformation, geophysical measurements, hydrology, gas and lastly remote sensing. In this fact file I will be showing when each of these techniques are used when they are used and how effective they are.


Seismic activity (earthquakes and tremors) always occurs as volcanoes awaken and prepare to erupt and are a very important link to eruptions. Some volcanoes normally have continuing low-level seismic activity, but an increase may signal a greater likelihood of an eruption. The types of earthquakes that occur and where they start and end are also key signs. Volcanic seismicity has three major forms: short-period earthquake, long-period earthquake, and harmonic tremor. Short-period earthquakes are like normal fault-generated earthquakes. They are caused by the fracturing of brittle rock as magma forces its way upward. These short-period earthquakes signify the growth of a magma body near the surface and are known as 'A' waves. Long-period earthquakes are believed to indicate increased gas pressure in a volcano's plumbing system. They are similar to the clanging sometimes heard in a house's plumbing system, which is known as "water hammer". These oscillations are the equivalent of acoustic vibrations in the chamber, in the context of magma chambers within the volcanic dome and are known as 'B' waves. Harmonic tremors are often the result of magma pushing against the overlying rock below the surface. They can sometimes be strong enough to be felt as humming or buzzing by people and animals, hence the name. Patterns of seismicity are complex and often difficult to interpret; however, increasing seismic activity is a good indicator of increasing eruption risk, especially if long-period events become dominant and episodes of harmonic tremor appear.

Gas emissions

As magma nears the surface and its pressure decreases and therefore gases escape. This process is much like what happens when you open a bottle of soda and carbon dioxide escapes. The main gases released are Sulphur dioxide and increasing amounts of it h erald the arrival of increasing amounts of magma near the surface. For example, on May 13, 1991, an increasing amount of sulphur dioxide was released from Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. On May 28, just two weeks later, sulphur dioxide emissions had increased to 5,000 tonnes, ten times the earlier amount. Mount Pinatubo later erupted on June 12, 1991. On several occasions, such as before the Mount Pinatubo eruption and the 1993 Galeras, Colombia eruption, sulphur dioxide emissions have dropped to low levels prior to eruptions. Most scientists believe that this drop in gas levels is caused by the sealing of gas passages by hardened magma. Such an event leads to increased pressure in the volcano's plumbing system and an increased chance of an explosive eruption.

Ground deformation

Swelling of the volcano signals that magma has accumulated near the surface. Scientists monitoring an active volcano will often measure the tilt of the slope and track changes in the rate of swelling. An increased rate of swelling, especially if accompanied by an increase in sulphur dioxide emissions and harmonic tremors is a high probability sign of an impending event. The deformation of Mount St. Helens prior to the May 18, 1980 eruption was a classic example of deformation, as the north side of the volcano was bulging upwards as magma was building up underneath. Most cases of ground deformation are usually detectable only by sophisticated equipment used by scientists, but they can still predict future eruptions this way. The Hawaiian Volcanoes show significant ground deformation; there is inflation of the ground prior to an eruption and then an obvious deflation post-eruption. This is due to the shallow magma chamber of the Hawaiian Volcanoes;


There are 4 main methods that can be used to predict a volcanic eruption through the use of hydrology: Borehole and well hydrologic and hydraulic measurements are increasingly used to monitor changes in a volcanoes subsurface gas pressure and thermal regime. Increased gas pressure will make water levels rise and suddenly drop right before an eruption, and thermal focusing (increased local heat flow) can reduce or dry out aquifers. USGS scientists have developed an inexpensive, durable, portable and easily installed system to detect and continuously monitor the arrival and passage of debris flows and floods in river valleys that drain active volcanoes. Pre-eruption sediment may be picked up by a river channel surrounding the volcano that shows that the actual eruption may be imminent. Most sediment is transported from volcanically disturbed watersheds during periods of heavy rainfall. This can be an indication of morphological changes and increased hydrothermal activity in absence of instrumental monitoring techniques. Volcanic deposit that may be placed on a river bank can easily be eroded which will dramatically widen or deepen the river channel. Therefore, monitoring of the river channels width and depth can be used to assess the likelihood of a future volcanic eruption.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is the detection by a satellite’s sensors of electromagnetic energy that is absorbed, reflected, radiated or scattered from the surface of a volcano or from its erupted material in an eruption cloud. 'Gas sensing: Sulphur dioxide can also be measured by remote sensing at some of the same wavelengths as ozone. TOMS (Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer) can measure the amount of sulphur dioxide gas released by volcanoes in eruptions Thermal sensing: The presence of new significant thermal signatures or 'hot spots' may indicate new heating of the ground before an eruption, represent an eruption in progress or the presence of a very recent volcanic deposit, including lava flows or pyroclastic flows. Deformation sensing: Satellite-borne spatial radar data can be used to detect long-term geometric changes in the volcanic edifice, such as uplift and depression.

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