Volcano project scours Iceland for early warning signals

Scientists explain how they are using more sensors and real-time monitoring to help give earlier warnings of an imminent eruption

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Work is under way to improve monitoring of Iceland's volcanoes and give earlier warning of possible eruptions.

The FutureVolc project is funded by the European Union and involves more sensors as well as better real-time data analysis.

It is a response to the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, which closed down much of European airspace.

It is hoped the work will enable better detection of imminent eruptions and map their evolution.

Start Quote

We want to better understand the volcanoes so we can have better advice on where to fly safely in the future”

End Quote Dr Freysteinn Sigmundsson Geophysicist

"Volcanoes actually scream 'I'm about to erupt'," Dr Matthew Roberts of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) told the BBC.

"Before they erupt they show many measurable signs, and it's the challenge for today's volcanologists to actually gather all that information and make use of it in real time and that's exactly what FutureVolc is about."

The programme is being led by the IMO and University of Iceland, but involves 26 different groups including the UK Met Office, British Geological Survey and the universities of Cambridge and Bristol.

As part of the project, new monitors will be fitted across the most active regions of the country, including around the Eyjafjallajokull site and Katla, one of Iceland's largest volcanoes.

The monitors can detect minute movements or tremors within the ground and detect any curving of the Earth's surface around volcanic sites (known as "inflation") which could be indicative of magma build-up.

FutureVolc sensors

Seismometers look for ground motions indicative of seismic waves from a quake or eruption.

GPS sensors use satellite technology to detect movement in the earth's crust which could result from magma build-up below.

Multi-gas meters look for changes in gas composition emanating from the ground characteristic of intruding magma.

Volumetric strain metres are large canisters of liquid placed within a borehole. The instrument detects displacement in the liquid caused by pressing rocks deforming the canister.

Infrasound arrays are groups of microphones which can detect shock waves in the atmosphere generated by eruptions or quakes.

Other experimental sensors will look for changes in gas emissions from active sites, which could suggest the movement of magma up through the Earth's surface.

Data is being fed in real time back to the IMO in Reykjavik where scientists scour the information for any tell-tale signs of an imminent eruption.

Dr Kristin Vogfjord, director of research at the IMO and co-leader of the FutureVolc project, says the Eyjafjallajokull eruption has brought new resources and scientists to Iceland.

She says the expansion of the network will allow the country to issue warnings much earlier than before.

"For some volcanoes, it can buy maybe hours, days or weeks even. For instance, for the Hekla volcano - our network has not been very sensitive there in the past; we only had 1-2 hours' warning.

"But now we have two seismometers very close and there'll be more this summer. There's a GPS network nearby too, so we'll be able to know something's going on sooner."

Dr Freysteinn Sigmundsson shows the BBC's Neil Bowdler around the Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland

The project also includes further research of ash types and ash dispersal, with scientists looking to better model the threat to European airspace from Icelandic eruptions.

"We need to understand how magma is flowing inside the volcano prior to an eruption so we have equipment to detect that," said Dr Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland.

"We need to know how it will evolve, how much magma will come out. We want to better quantify it so we can have better advice on where to fly safely in the future."

A report commissioned by Airbus put the cost to global business of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption at as high as $5bn, but estimates vary widely. The airspace restrictions imposed during the eruption were bitterly opposed by many airlines.

Some are already looking to the next eruption. Easyjet, together with Airbus, is currently testing systems that it says will enable planes to detect and circumnavigate ash clouds. Further tests, using ash from Eyjafjallajokull, will be conducted this summer.

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