Volcano expert pinpoints key eruption warning signs which signal when it’s about to blow

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Our species has been forced to adapt to living next to volcanoes for millennia. Numerous settlements are now clustered around volcanoes due to the opportunities they present. These range from fertile earth and more recently, tourism and the potential for generating geothermal energy. As a result, the ability to predict when volcanoes will erupt is vital for protecting locals.

Cambridge University volcano expert Eloise Matthews has now revealed several warning signs which can help with forecasting volcanic eruptions.

She said: “One sign is the detection of shallow, low magnitude earthquakes, which are triggered by the ascent of magma, semi-molten rock which rises as it is less dense than the surrounding solid rock.

“Experiencing blockages on its way up causes pressure to build up, which fractures the overlying rock.

“These earthquakes are early warning signs – the eruption of Mount St Helens in May 1980, for example, was foreshadowed by seismic activity from mid-March of that year.

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“The level of activity may increase sharply just before an eruption, but, like with Mount St Helens, this is not always the case.”

She added magma chamber stress can also be watched to help to forecast when the pressure will be released and therefore when an eruption can likely be expected.

She said: “This process has been significantly improved in recent years by the application of a Kalman filter to the signals.

“This looks at temporal data and considers statistical noise to estimate future patterns, and thus when pressure may be released, triggering an eruption.”

She adds this analysis method worked when studying 2008’s eruption of the Okmok volcano in Alaska.

This worked despite the subtle stress signals, including only slight deformation of the ground.

Volcanologists and locals were recently put on red alert that Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano may soon erupt.

If this does occur, this will provide another example of why volcanoes need to be individually monitored, because each boasts unique tectonics and topography.

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Ms Matthews said: “Iceland is widely covered in glaciers, which affect both the monitoring scope and the impacts of eruptions.

“For example, the immense heat of erupting magma often causes glaciers to melt, and the removal of the pressure of the ice’s weight often enables explosions to then occur.

“Furthermore, the water can then mix with the resulting lava flow, and other volcanic rocks and ash, to create a rapid flow called a lahar.

“However, this may not always be the case if the ice doesn’t melt quickly.

“In Iceland, and many other glacial locations, structures called tuyas can form where the lava erupts in a flat “table-top” shape.

“Understanding different structures helps scientists forecast the nature of the products and the spatial extent that they will cover.”

She added how the release of gases acts can act as a warning sign a volcano is about to erupt.

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