Jet Planes Can Help Predict the Strength of Volcanic Eruptions

January 5, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

volcano erupting against a night sky
Photo credit: Walter Lim/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It turns out they make the same noises, and that is extremely useful.

Volcanoes: when they erupt they’re beautiful natural disasters, but they can also be very dangerous.  Volcanoes are essentially vents on Earth’s surface where molten rock, debris, and gas escape the interior.

Volcanoes tend to exist along between and along the edges of tectonic plates — which are what make up Earth’s surface — and 90 percent of all volcanoes occur along the Ring of Fire, which describes the region marking the edges of the Pacific Ocean.  There are about 1,900 volcanoes considered active on Earth, meaning at some point they will erupt again, with many other volcanoes either dormant (showing no activity) or extinct.

Beneath the surface of a volcano, in the magma chamber, large amounts of magma and gas build up, which can result in large explosions that fling lava, rocks and ash into the air.  If there is less gas than magma in the chamber, the eruption is usually not very dramatic and often results in steady streams of lava flowing from the vent.

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However, a very large eruption can be extremely dangerous for people living near a volcano.  Lava flows can reach temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more, which burns and melts everything in its path.  Along with lava, other hazards include boulders falling from the sky, as well as rapidly flowing mud and pyroclastic flows that can bury entire villages.  The ash and toxic gas emitted from volcanoes can also cause lung damage, especially to infants and the elderly.

Since volcanoes can be so dangerous, scientists want to be able to better predict how strong a volcanic eruption will be.  To do this, they are turning to jet planes.  So what do jet planes and volcanoes have in common?  It is known as eruption acoustics.

It turns out that the noises produced by volcanoes are quite similar to those made by man-made jet engines.  This makes sense because jets and eruptions work in very similar ways.  For example, material in a chamber over-pressurizes until it bursts through an opening, such as a nozzle in the case of a rocket, or a volcanic vent if we are describing a volcano.

Rockets are engineered so fuel and airflow are exactly known, and scientists believe the evaluation of eruption sounds could help determine the amount of material that is going to be erupted from a volcano.  To do this, they use infrasound microphones.  They looked at the Aso volcano in Japan, and confirmed that the sounds produced just outside a small vent sound just like the boom heard through a rocket’s nozzle.  Very cool.

The next step of their research is to find an upcoming larger eruption, and then collect enough data to make computer models that will be able to predict what is likely to happen once a volcano erupts.

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