Eyes on Yellowstone: Satellite technology set to predict volcanic eruptions

As the number of animals fleeing Yellowstone park increases and fears that the park’s supervolcano will soon erupt grow, a group of scientists have found a method that could predict future eruptions.

Bison in the US park have been seen heading to the hills following recent seismic activity in the area that could lead to the massive underground reservoir of magma below the park erupting.

If a supererruption were to happen ash from the volcano could destroy our food supplies and also pollute the surrounding waterways, as well as stopping air travel. Some have even gone as far to say that and eruption could cover most of America in ash.

However a satellite that is launching today should allow the development of a forecast system for every volcano on earth – allowing scientists to see which may erupt next.

In countries where there is little data on volcanoes this could provide the only warning of an eruption, the scientists said, which has the potential to save lives.

yellowstone

The scientists looked at archive of satellite data covering 500 volcanoes worldwide and were able to see where deformation – rock turning into magma – had occurred.

Satellite data can show high resolution maps of rock deformation, the researchers then worked out that 46% of deforming volcanoes erupted, whereas 94% of non-deforming volcanoes had not erupted.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite which is launching today should be able to provide information on deforming volcanoes and show which will erupt next.

Professor Tim Wright, Director of COMET, which is responsible for modelling natural events, said: “This study is particularly exciting because Sentinel-1 will soon give us systematic observations of the ups and downs of every volcano on the planet.

“For many places, particularly in developing countries, these data could provide the only warning of an impending eruption.”

“Improving how we anticipate activity using new technology such as this is an important first step in doing better at forecasting and preparing for volcanic eruptions,” said STREVA Principal Investigator, Dr Jenni Barclay.

The scientists have found volcano deformation and in particular uplift, are caused by magma moving or pressurising underground. They say magma rising towards the surface could be a sign of an imminent eruption – although a volcano may stop short of erupting.

Dr Juliet Biggs, from the University of Bristol, said: “The findings suggest that satellite radar is the perfect tool to identify volcanic unrest on a regional or global scale and target ground-based monitoring.”

“This study demonstrates what can be achieved with global satellite coverage even with limited acquisitions, so we are looking forward to the step-change in data quantity planned for the next generation of satellites.”


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