Carbon and sulfur emissions may provide early warnings of volcanic eruptions
One of the worst things of most natural disasters is the element of surprise. A hurricane is easier to survive if you have a warning it’s coming. Volcanic eruptions, as exotic as they seem to many of us, may soon become more manageable for the multitudes of people living near active volcanoes around the world. New measurements of gasses emitted from volcanic sites suggest that there may be patterns in their release reliable enough to use as an early warning system.
The key ingredients are carbon dioxide (CO2) and a handful of sulfur-based compounds. The pattern that seems to be emerging from the growing collection of data hinges on the ratio between these two groups of gases. When CO2 levels spike, eruptions seem to follow. This is likely thanks to how much easier CO2 moves through magma, percolating through much more quickly than sulfur-based compounds. So when there’s an increase in magma close to the opening of the volcano, more CO2 is released, hinting at the more serious materials that may soon be released.
Scientists have long suspected that the gasses released from volcanoes might forecast eruptions, but until recently they’ve lacked the measurements to really prove it. Hardier, and cheaper, gas sensors are now able to be installed at volcanoes, providing more consistent streams of data than earlier spot checks allowed. These patterns aren’t completely conclusive yet, and some volcanoes are likely to have their own quirks or adjustments to the formula, but it does look like volcano warning systems are becoming more reliable than ever.
For people on the ground, these means a bit less guesswork when planning around possible eruptions. Many people live near active volcanoes, partially thanks to the rich farmland eruptions help create. However, being near a “red zone” requires a fair amount of preparedness, including access to goggles, evacuation routes and hopefully some kind of air quality control. If eruptions become more predictable, hopefully people will be able to be both at ease, and ready for trouble, at the more appropriate times.
Source: Volcanic fumes warn of imminent eruptions by Julia Rosen, Science