Taking a volcano’s pulse

Andrew McGonigle

Eight hundred million people live in the shadow of fiery death, within striking range of one of Earth’s 500 historically active volcanoes.

For Scottish volcanologist Andrew McGonigle, providing timely warning of an impending eruption is a goal that is both humanitarian and scientific.

In 2008, Andrew McGonigle received a Rolex Award for Enterprise that enabled him to build and fly a drone capable of chemically sampling and interpreting the gaseous breath of active volcanoes, with the aim of predicting when they are likely to explode.

“The Award really helped us push forward the technology that I’d been working on previously, to the extent that now this is being used by a number of volcanologists across the planet,” he says.

Along with his flying sensors, McGonigle now uses ultra-sensitive smartphone camera-based technology that can ‘see’ the rising volcanic gases in the ultraviolet spectrum. By observing the increasing flow of emissions at the vent, he hopes to be able to foreshadow an impending eruption, as the explosive, gas-filled lava works its way up the volcano’s throat.

We can, in effect, see it [the volcano] ‘breathing’ as the gas bubbles rise through the magma column and escape into the air, and observe the variations in these waves of gas. This has never been done before.Andrew McGonigle

“This means we are now able to take the volcano’s pulse. We can, in effect, see it ‘breathing’ as the gas bubbles rise through the magma column and escape into the air, and observe the variations in these waves of gas. This has never been done before,” he explains.

McGonigle hopes that one day his cameras can be placed on all the riskiest fire mounts across the globe to provide round-the-clock monitoring and danger alerts that will save lives, even in very remote locations. His technology is designed to be affordable and robust. “Anything that can go wrong in a volcanic environment will go wrong and there are no electronic shops just down the road where you can go and buy spare parts,” he warns.

The key challenge in McGonigle’s work lies in interpreting the patterns of volcanic gas emissions with sufficient reliability to enable confident prediction of what is about to happen. “The problem is that no two volcanoes are exactly alike. They have widely different chemistries and eruptive styles – from a constant, regular bubbling, like Mount Stromboli in Sicily, to a much rarer, vast explosion like the Plinian eruption of Vesuvius in AD79,” he points out. “This means we have to assemble a very large knowledge base for each of the five main classes of volcano.”

McGonigle’s task now is to survey enough volcanoes, in different geological settings around the world, to recognize the danger signs reliably in individual mounts. In effect, this means characterizing the different families of volcano by their breath.

After initial field trials of his technology on Mt Stromboli and Mt Etna in Italy, he has expanded the scope of his testing to volcanoes in the Chilean Andes and the Pacific Ring of Fire. In northern Chile, geologist Felipe Aguilera has been testing McGonigle’s gas sampling technology and working with him on the automation of his smartphone sensor-based technology, to develop a continuous sentinel for volcanic activity.

Through its combination of discovery and human benefit, McGonigle’s research is a good illustration of the Perpetual Planet initiative. The fresh understanding of the volcano, one of the planet’s most marvellous engines, is combined with a potentially lifesaving new technology that may, one day, abolish a natural threat older than humanity itself.

McGonigle has also been approached by NASA concerning application of his sensors beyond Earth, given the very low weight and high ultraviolet sensitivity of these units. Since 2018 he has been working with scientists and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in order to develop a highly compact instrument, suitable for operation on board a lunar rover. The intended mission is to probe the abundance of water on the moon and to expand understanding of the evolution of the solar system. The instrumentation based on his sensors is currently being engineered into a flight-ready format.

PUBLISHED IN 2008

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