Geologists successfully predict volcanic eruption five months in advance, develop new forecasting system

Geologists successfully predict volcanic eruption five months in advance, develop new forecasting system

The impact could have been reduced had there been a warning beforehand.

When the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano off the South Pacific island erupted earlier this year, while the impact was limited on lives, livelihoods were lost and ripples were felt across the world, including in space. The impact could have been reduced had there been a warning beforehand.

Geologists successfully predict volcanic eruption five months in advance, develop new forecasting system
Tonga volcanic eruption caused biggest explosion since 1883

A team of researchers is on the precipice of developing a warning system that could predict volcanic eruptions before it happens. In a study published in the journal Science Advances, they have detailed the system that successfully predicted the 2018 eruption of the Sierra Negra volcano in the Galápagos.

Researchers from the University of Illinois predicted the eruption with an error margin of a day using advancements in high-performance computing data assimilation by combining it with satellite InSAR data with numerical models. The volcano erupted on June 26, 2018, five months after they issued the forecast.

"One of the great challenges in the field of volcanology is to develop quantitative models to investigate the processes that lead to volcanic eruptions and use these models to provide eruption forecasts," researchers said in the paper that details the development of models capable of interpreting field observations and tracking the evolution of a magma system.

Forecasting a volcanic eruption is difficult, similar to weather forecasting where different dynamic variables are involved.

Sierra Negra, the most voluminous of the Galápagos volcanoes, occupies most of the southern portion of Isabela Island and has experienced at least seven historic eruptions since 1911, with an eruption occurring approximately every 15 years. Instruments had already begun picking up signals of rumblings under the surface indicating the volcanic activity rising.

The team of researchers used the same methods as utilised in the weather forecasting business and combined observational data of the volcano's ground activity with predictions from simulations. The team then used satellite and radar images of the ground below the volcano to observe the magma activity. These combined the data and ran it through supercomputers to predict the future.

Geologists successfully predict volcanic eruption five months in advance, develop new forecasting system
Tonga volcanic eruption caused biggest explosion since 1883

Based on the movement of the magma system under the surface in the early months of 2018, they predicted a possible eruption between June 25 and July 5. The volcano erupted on June 26, preceded by a rapid increase in seismic activity. A magnitude 5.4 quake was also recorded along the southern side of the caldera and the eruption that followed lasted for 58 days with the lava flow spreading over 30.6 square kilometers.

"Coulomb stress transfer models suggest that the faulting event triggered the 2018 eruption by encouraging tensile failure along the northern portion of the caldera. These findings provide a critical framework for understanding Sierra Negra's eruption cycles and evaluating the potential and timing of future eruptions," the paper read.

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