Satellites could spot volcanic eruptions in advance

Posted by Kate Taylor

It could be possible to get advance warning of volcanic eruptions by observing them from space.

Scientists at the University of Miami have been using Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) data to investigate how the Earth is deformed before the eruption of active volcanoes in Indonesia’s west Sunda arc.

And, they say, they've spotted several volcanoes that did in fact inflate before erupting, because of the rise of magma. It's the first time that volvanologists have been able to make predictions in this way.

"Surveying entire volcanic regions using satellite data is of primary importance to the detection of ground deformation prior to the onset of eruptions. If volcanic inflation is observed, it can help us to predict where the next eruption may occur," says geophysicist Estelle Chaussard.

"Moreover, in regions like Indonesia, where volcanoes are prevalent and pose a threat to millions of people, and where ground-based monitoring is sparse, remote sensing via satellite could become a major forecasting tool."

The team surveyed 79 volcanoes in Indonesia between 2006 and 2009, analyzing more than 800 InSAR images from the Japanese Space Exploration Agency’s ALOS satellite. They detected deformation at six volcanic centers, three of which subsequently erupted.

"The notion of detecting deformation prior to a volcanic eruption has been around for a while," says Professor Falk Amelung. "Because this region is so volcanically active, our use of InSAR has been very successful. We now have a tool that can tell us where eruptions are more likely to occur."

The team now plans to study other parts of Indonesia, along with the Philippines, using data from the Japanese Space Agency’s ALOS-2, which will be launched next year.

"he monitoring of changes to the Earth’s surface helps us to better predict the onset of volcanic activity, which can have devastating impacts on human life," says Amelung.

"Like with earthquakes and tsunamis, however, we cannot predict activity with certainty, but we hope that new tools like satellite remote sensing will help us to gather critical information in near real-time so we can anticipate the risk of eruptions and deploy resources in a timely manner."