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Scientists closer to forecasting volcanic eruptions

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Staff Writer |
volcanic eruptions
Nature   A new time-lapse volcanic animation

On average, 40 volcanoes on land erupt into the atmosphere each month, while scores of others on the seafloor erupt into the ocean.

A new time-lapse animation uniting volcanoes, earthquakes, and gaseous emissions reveals unforgettably the large, rigid plates that make the outermost shell of Earth and suggests the immense heat and energy beneath them seeking to escape.

With one click, visitors can see the last 50 years of "Eruptions, Earthquakes, and Emissions." Called E3, the app allows the viewer to select and learn about individual eruptions, emissions, and earthquakes as well as their collective impact.

Visualizing these huge global datasets together for the first time, users can speed or slow or stop the passage of time.

They can observe flat maps or globes, and watch gas clouds circle the planet. Data from Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program and the United States Geological Earthquake Survey (USGS) feed into the app, and the datasets are available for free download.

The app will update continuously, accumulating new events and additional historical information as it becomes available.

"Have you had a 'eureka!' moment where you suddenly see order in what appeared chaotic? This app abounds in such moments," said Elizabeth Cottrell, head of the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

"As geologic events accumulate over time, Earth's tectonic plates appear before your eyes. What took geologists more than 200 years to learn, a viewer learns in seconds. We wanted to share the excitement with as big an audience as possible. This is the first time we're able to present these datasets together for the public."

She added, "This app is interesting not only for educators and the public, but also will help scientists understand global eruption patterns and linkages between Earth's inner workings and the air we breathe."

A team of experts developed the app with support from the Smithsonian Institution and the Deep Carbon Observatory, an international multidisciplinary research program exploring the quantities, movements, forms, and origins of carbon deep inside Earth.

Deep Carbon Observatory scientists are studying volcanic emissions as part of this mission, and will more than triple the number of permanent volcano gas monitoring stations from 2012-2019.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world live on the flanks of active volcanoes, and eruptions can cause massive economic damage even when few people live nearby.

In 2010, Eyafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, spewing massive ash clouds, disrupting air travel for millions of people and costing the airline industry nearly USD 2 billion. Better anticipation of eruptions could lower the human and economic toll of these natural phenomena.

Recent discoveries by Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) scientists in the Deep Earth Carbon Degassing (DECADE) initiative are laying the foundation for improved volcanic eruption forecasts. These hard-won advances required expensive, dangerous expeditions to sniff gas emissions for clues.

"We are deploying automated monitoring stations at volcanoes around the world to measure the gases they emit," said Tobias Fischer, a volcanologist at the University of New Mexico, USA, and leader of DECADE.

"We measure carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor (steam), the major gases emitted by all volcanoes on the planet. In the hours before an eruption, we see consistent changes in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted relative to sulfur dioxide.

"Keeping an eye on the ratios globally via satellites and on-site monitoring helps us learn the precursors of volcanic eruptions. Monitoring these volcanic gas variations also helps us come up with a more accurate estimate of total volcanic carbon dioxide emissions on Earth -- a major goal of DCO."

"Our goal of tripling the number of volcanoes monitored around the world by 2019 is no small task," added Fischer. "Installing instruments on top of volcanoes is dangerous work in extremely hard-to-reach places."

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