Volcanic eruption

Blasting lava with lasers could help predict volcanic eruptions, scientists say

Image credit: Foto 25125413 © Pablo Hidalgo | Dreamstime.com

University of Queensland researchers have developed a technique to help forecast how volcanoes will behave and protect people and property from eruptions.

A team of international collaborators have trialled a new application to analyse volcanic lava and better understand volcanic eruptions. The new technique relies on an approach known as laser ablation inductively coupled plasma quadruple mass spectrometry.

“It’s a mouthful, but this high-resolution technique offers clearer data on what’s chemically occurring within a volcano’s magma, which is fundamental to forecasting eruption patterns and changes,” said Dr Teresa Ubide from the University of Queensland’s School of the Environment.

Ubide described magma as the "computer code" of volcanoes, providing information on the eruption style and lava flow. 

“The chemical changes that occur within the liquid portion of the magma during a volcanic eruption are quite incredible,” Ubide said. “The magma is made up of liquid melt, gas and crystals that combine inside the volcano."

The high quantity of crystals in volcanic magma often makes the material difficult to analyse for scientists who are trying to understand its chemistry. In order to remove them, the team "blast the cooled melt", known as the rock matrix, with a laser similar to those used for eye surgery. Afterwards, the researchers are able to analyse the material by measuring its chemical make-up.

Volcanic eruption in Spain

Volcanic eruption in Spain/ IGME (Instituto Geologico y Minero de Espana)

Image credit: IGME (Instituto Geologico y Minero de Espana)

This innovative method to analyse volcanic lava was tested by the team on samples collected during the damaging 2021 eruption on the Canary Island of La Palma, which lasted 85 days.

The eruption covered more than 12 square kilometres and the 159 cubic metres of lava destroyed around 1,600 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 people. The disaster resulted in costs of around $1.4bn to Spain, according to the researchers. 

In order to avoid similar situations, the team stressed the need for preventative measures and a better understanding of volcanoes' behaviours.

“To understand how volcanic eruptions may evolve and to provide warnings and advice to people, live monitoring data is critical," Ubide said.

“Earthquakes, ground changes and gas data provide indirect information on what is happening inside an active volcano but the chemistry of the melt is a direct measure of the ‘personality’ of the magma, its behaviour upon eruption and potential impact on populations and infrastructure."

The team hopes that the information gathered during the La Palma eruption could help inform volcano monitoring and hazard management in the future.

In addition, the researchers are also trialling a similar technique on volcanic ash, which can be sampled more readily during a volcanic event.

In April, a separate research team presented a low-cost camera that can detect the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2) being emitted from volcanoes, which could help scientists to better predict when eruptions will occur.

Moreover, in December last year, a small drone equipped with an ultra-lightweight sensor system was developed to monitor volcanoes from above.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances. 

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