Scientists experiment with lasers to predict volcanic eruptions

The new method could save lives by forecasting exactly when and where eruptions will take place.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Volcanic eruption
Volcanic eruption

Alain Bonnardeaux / Unsplash  

University of Queensland researchers have conceived of a new technique to help predict how volcanoes will behave. The method can forecast where and when eruptions will take place, a development that could save lives and property around the world.

The work was led by Dr. Teresa Ubide from UQ’s School of the Environment and is called “laser ablation inductively coupled plasma quadruple mass spectrometry.”

It was recently tested by the scientists and proved to be successful. This is according to a press release by the institution published on Wednesday.

Forecasting eruptions

“It’s a mouthful, but this high-resolution technique offers clearer data on what’s chemically occurring within a volcano’s magma, which is fundamental to forecasting eruption patterns and changes,” Ubide said.

The researcher explained this concept by comparing magma to a ‘computer code’ for volcanoes, providing crucial information on the eruption style and lava flow.  

“The chemical changes that occur within the liquid portion of the magma during a volcanic eruption are quite incredible,” Ubide added.

“The magma is made up of liquid melt, gas and crystals that combine inside the volcano.

“There are often so many meddling crystals that the magma looks like rocky road, and it’s difficult to observe its chemistry.

“To get these crystals out of the way, we blast the cooled melt – which is known as the rock matrix – with a laser like those used for eye surgery.

“Then we analyze the material measuring its chemical make-up.”

Eruption in the Canary Islands

The new method was tested on samples collected during the 2021 eruption on the Canary Island of La Palma, which lasted 85 days and saw much damage to the region.

“The eruption covered more than 12 square kilometers with 159 cubic meters of lava destroying around 1,600 homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 7,000 people – it cost the country the equivalent of around $1.4 billion,” Ubide said.

“To understand how volcanic eruptions may evolve and to provide warnings and advice to people, live monitoring data is critical.

“Earthquakes, ground changes and gas data provide indirect information on what is happening inside an active volcano but the chemistry of the melt is a direct measure of the ‘personality’ of the magma, its behaviour upon eruption and potential impact on populations and infrastructure.

“The information we gathered during this eruption could help inform volcano monitoring and hazard management in the future.”

Researchers are now testing a similar technique on volcanic ash, which is easier to procure during volcanic events.

“We are excited to collaborate with volcano observatories to implement the method as a monitoring tool,” Ubide concluded in the statement.