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Drone technology improves ability to forecast volcanic eruptions

One of the reasons that volcanoes are so dangerous is that it’s hard to predict their eruptions. Now, scientists have formed a plan to use drones to explore remote volcanoes to learn about forecasting eruptions and to see how they contribute to the global carbon cycle.

Working at the 6-mile-diameter Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea, researchers in the ABOVE program used modified long-range drones to measure the gases emitted from the volcano. This particular volcano has been shown to be one of the biggest emitters of sulfur dioxide in the world, but researchers didn’t know about its carbon dioxide emissions. This is important as knowing the ratio of sulfur dioxide to carbon dioxide can help predict eruptions by giving information about where magma is located.

Manam has been particularly dangerous in recent years, with eruptions in both 2004 and 2006 that caused widespread devastation on the island by destroying crops and contaminating groundwater. It’s impossible to get close enough to active vents to collect samples in person, so using drones allowed the safe collection of data from distances of several miles away. The team has now helped the local population set up a disaster preparedness group so they can be ready if the volcano gives indications it might erupt again.

Aerial view of the active vent and gas plume of Manam volcano, Papua New Guinea, from a fixed-wing drone at 2300 m altitude.
Aerial view of the active vent and gas plume of Manam volcano, Papua New Guinea, from a fixed-wing drone at 2300 m altitude. Emma Liu/ABOVE

In addition to helping out the local population, the research also gives new insights into the effect of volcanic emissions on the carbon levels. The rising quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to climate change will make such eruption predictions more difficult in the future.

“Ten years ago you could have only stared and guessed what Manam’s CO2 emissions were,” co-author Professor Alessandro Aiuppa of the University of Palermo said in a statement. “If you take into account all the carbon released by global volcanism, it’s less than a percent of the total emission budget, which is dominated by human activity. In a few centuries, humans are acting like thousands of volcanoes. If we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, it will make monitoring and forecasting eruptions using aerial gas observations even harder.”

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