Laser Tech Unlocks Secrets to Predicting Volcanic Eruptions


| LAST UPDATE 07/09/2023

By Stanley Wickens
Jordan Corrales via Pexels

Volcanoes, with their spectacular landscapes and fertile soil, are a source of fascination and fear. They can be a boon for many due to the rich soil they produce, but their unpredictable nature can spell disaster for the one in ten people worldwide who live within 100 kilometers of an active volcano. The ability to forecast their eruptions would be a significant achievement, and recent research brings us closer to this goal.

A groundbreaking study has been conducted that leverages laser technology to help predict volcanic activities. Published in Science Advances, this research focuses on understanding the chemistry of erupted magma—molten rock—over time. The chemical makeup of magma influences its fluidity, explosivity, and hazard potential, providing crucial insights into how and when a volcanic eruption might occur. Magma is composed of liquid 'melt', gas, and crystals that form as the magma cools while rising to Earth's surface. When the magma erupts, it releases gases and cools down into volcanic rock, which contains a matrix of crystals formed inside the volcano. These crystals offer valuable clues about what leads up to an eruption.

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The researchers used an ultraviolet laser, similar to those used in eye surgery, to blast the rock matrix between larger crystals. This innovative method allowed them to analyze the chemical composition of the volcanic matrix rapidly, providing a more detailed measure of melt chemistry and its evolution over time. This research focused on the 2021 eruption at La Palma, the most destructive volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands' history. By analyzing lava samples collected during the eruption, the researchers identified variations in the lava's chemistry linked to changes in earthquakes, sulfur dioxide emissions, eruption styles, and resulting hazards.

While we cannot prevent volcanoes from erupting, nor can we journey inside them like Jules Verne's characters, we can improve our ability to understand their inner workings. The study provides a laboratory tool for testing volcanic samples collected during future eruptions, aiming to comprehend why they start and when they might end. So, with each eruption, science takes another step forward in understanding these magnificent natural phenomena. With every piece of data gathered, we enhance our knowledge and get closer to predicting when the next volcano might erupt, ultimately protecting those living in the shadow of these awe-inspiring giants.

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