Powerful, low-cost camera could predict volcanic explosions

"Before now, only three volcanoes have had permanent SO2 cameras installed on them."
Sade Agard
(Left) The new 'SO2 camera' (Right) Volcanic eruption stock photo
(Left) The new 'SO2 camera' (Right) Volcanic eruption stock photo

Dr Tom Pering/ andersen_oy stein  

Scientists make long-term volcano monitoring achievable by developing an SO2 (Sulphur dioxide) camera that is significantly less expensive and more effective in the field than earlier models that cost more than $20,000, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Earth Science on April 3.

The new camera may improve access to datasets with precise gas emission rates, assisting more volcanologists in forecasting eruptions affecting millions of people.

Is there a way to predict when a volcano will erupt?

Gas emissions are the visible expression of activity taking place within a volcano. Ultraviolet SO2 cameras have become crucial for measuring such emissions since the mid-2000s. However, since these campaigns require a user to be present, SO2 cameras are unsuitable for collecting long-term datasets (not to mention their high costs).

Now, to break these barriers, an international team of researchers has developed an SO2 camera to measure emission rates from volcanoes continually. 

"Our instrument uses a sensor not dissimilar to smartphone camera sensors. It is modified to make it sensitive to ultraviolet light, therefore enabling SO2 detection," explained lead author Dr. Thomas Wilkes in a press release, a researcher at the University of Sheffield.

Partly 3D-printed and high-power efficiency

The new design has a price tag of about $5,000, making the cost of the parts—some of which are 3D-printed—less than about a fourth of that of earlier models.

Powerful, low-cost camera could predict volcanic explosions
The SO2 camera installation on Kīlauea volcano, Hawaii, US. The gas plume can be faintly seen rising from the crater at the centre of the image and drifting to the left. The flank of Moana Loa can be seen in the background.

"We also introduce a user-friendly, freely available software for controlling the instrument and processing the acquired data in a robust manner," Wilkes said. 

The system is also energy-efficient, with an average power consumption of 3.75 Watts—around half of what was required to power the earlier designs.

According to the researchers, this will be especially helpful at locations where little solar energy can be captured. Their camera uses fewer, smaller, or cheaper solar panels or batteries, lowering the price.

While there are other tools to measure volcanic emissions, "the SO2 camera can provide higher time- and spatial-resolution data which could facilitate new volcanological research when installed permanently," argued Wilkes.

"Before now, only three volcanoes have had permanent SO2 cameras installed on them," Wilkes said. 

"Discrete field campaigns have been carried out, and whilst they can be invaluable for a range of research questions, it is important to be able to measure volcanic activity continuously since it can vary substantially from minutes to decades to centuries and beyond."

Wilkes and his team also presented two early data sets from Kilauea, a shield volcano in Hawaii's Big Island, and Lascar, a stratovolcano in Chile, where their camera is constantly operating.

The researchers did, however, note a few SO2 camera limitations. This includes that they are weather-dependent, performing best in clear, blue skies with the volcanic gas plume moving at a 90-degree angle to the camera's field of view.

The complete study was published in Frontiers in Earth Science on April 3 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Since its introduction to volcanology in the mid-2000 s, the SO2 camera has become an important instrument for the acquisition of accurate and high time-resolution SO2 emission rates, aiding in hazard assessment and volcanological research. However, with the exception of a few locations (Stromboli, Etna, Kīlauea), hitherto the majority of measurements have been made on discrete field campaigns, which provide only brief snapshots into a volcano’s activity. Here, we present the development of a new, low-cost, low-power SO2 camera for permanent deployment on volcanoes, facilitating long-term, quasi-continuous (daylight hours only) measurements. We then discuss preliminary datasets from Lascar and Kīlauea volcanoes, where instruments are now in continuous operation. Further proliferation of such instrumentation has the potential to greatly improve our understanding of the transient nature of volcanic activity, as well as aiding volcano monitoring/eruption forecasting.

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