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New camera helps scientists forecast volcanic eruptions

An international team of researchers has developed a new SO2 camera to continuously measure volcanic gas emissions, offering a cost-efficient and user-friendly alternative to previous models. The findings have been published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science.

Volcanic gas emissions are critical indicators of activity beneath the Earth’s surface, providing important information for hazard monitoring and the prediction of future eruptions. Ultraviolet SO2 cameras have become essential tools for measuring volcanic emissions since the mid-2000s. However, these cameras require a user, making them unsuitable for obtaining long-term datasets, and their high cost means that only a few are installed permanently.

To address these challenges, the researchers developed an SO2 camera that is significantly cheaper and uses less power than previous models, making it suitable for continuous monitoring. The new design costs approximately $5,000, around a quarter of previous models, and uses a sensor similar to those found in smartphone cameras, modified to detect ultraviolet light.

“We also introduce a user-friendly, freely available software for controlling the instrument and processing the acquired data in a robust manner,” explained study lead author Dr. Thomas Wilkes from the University of Sheffield.

The affordability and user-friendliness of the new camera make it accessible to more volcanologists who may not have access to datasets containing accurate gas emission rates.

The power consumption of the system is low, averaging 3.75 watts, about half of what was needed for previous systems. This is especially beneficial in areas with little solar power to be harnessed, as the camera can run on fewer or smaller solar panels or batteries, further reducing costs.

The researchers presented two preliminary data sets from Lascar, a stratovolcano in Chile, and Kilauea, a shield volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, where their camera is in continuous operation. “The SO2 camera can provide higher time- and spatial-resolution data which could facilitate new volcanological research when installed permanently,” said Dr. Wilkes.

However, the researchers acknowledged that the SO2 cameras have some limitations, such as being dependent on meteorological conditions and working best under clear blue skies when the volcanic gas plume moves in a 90-degree angle to the viewing direction of the camera.

Despite these limitations, the researchers’ new SO2 camera offers an affordable and user-friendly alternative to previous models, providing continuous monitoring of volcanic gas emissions and enabling new research opportunities.

Volcanic eruptions are complex and highly variable natural events that can be influenced by a wide range of factors, making them difficult to predict accurately. Some of the reasons why it’s challenging to forecast volcanic eruptions include:

  1. Lack of complete information: It can be challenging to gather information about the internal workings of a volcano. Monitoring instruments can provide data on seismic activity, gas emissions, and ground deformation, but these measurements alone cannot provide a complete picture of the volcanic system.
  2. Uncertainty in eruption timing: Volcanic eruptions can occur without warning, making it difficult to forecast when an eruption will happen. Even when precursory signals are detected, it is often challenging to determine how long it will take for an eruption to occur.
  3. Differences between volcanic systems: Every volcanic system is unique, with its own set of geological, structural, and physical characteristics that can affect how eruptions occur. Therefore, it is difficult to develop a single model for predicting volcanic eruptions that applies to all volcanoes.
  4. The complexity of volcanic processes: The mechanisms that drive volcanic eruptions are complex and not yet fully understood. Magma movement, gas transport, and volcanic plumbing systems can all influence eruption behavior, making it difficult to predict with certainty what will happen.

Despite these challenges, scientists continue to make progress in understanding and forecasting volcanic eruptions through improved monitoring techniques, data analysis, and modeling.


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