It’s notoriously difficult to predict volcanic corruptions. There are often signs that a volcano is likely to erupt in the future, including an increase in seismic activity, changes in gas emissions, and sudden ground deformation but accurately predicting eruptions is hard. Part of the challenge is that no two volcanoes behave exactly the same way before they erupt and another part is because only a few of the active volcanoes around the world have monitoring systems in place.
NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, have developed a new method using satellite data that brings the possibility of predicting volcanic eruptions months or even years before they happen. The new methodology uses a subtle but significant increase in heat emissions over large areas of the volcano in the years leading to eruption. Researchers say it allows them to see the volcano has reawakened, often well before any other signs of volcanoes becoming active.
During the study, the team analyzed over 16 years of radiant heat data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) instruments aboard the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites. The data covered several types of volcanoes that have erupted in the past two decades. NASA found that despite differences in the volcanoes, the results were uniform. In all instances, in the years leading up to the eruption, the radiant surface temperature over much of the volcano increased by about one degree Celsius from its normal state. The temperature decreased after each eruption.
NASA stresses that it’s not talking about hotspots, but the warming of large areas of the volcano is believed to be related to fundamental processes happening in the volcano’s depths. Scientists believe the heat increase could result from the interaction between magma reservoirs and hydrothermal systems. The scientists on the project are clear that other processes may also be at play because knowledge about volcanoes is limited. Researchers plan to test the new method on more volcanoes and continue to fine-tune the system’s precision.