Every land volcano on Earth to be monitored from space

Satellite image of lava flowing from Mount Etna in Sicily

Lava flowing from Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-2A satellite.

29 June 2017 by Sylvie Kruiniger

Two European Space Station Sentinel satellites routinely map the planet's surface and beam their data to Earth using a high-speed laser link. Scientists at the NERC-funded Centre for Observation & Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes & Tectonics (COMET) are now using these images to monitor every land volcano on Earth.

Globally, around 1,500 volcanoes on land are thought to be potentially active but until now only a few have been closely monitored. Instruments are expensive and you need many scientists to look over all the data they generate meaning this project could make a big difference to volcano monitoring in poorer countries.

Before a volcano erupts, magma rises from deep under the Earth, causing the ground above to swell. A big question is working out when a change in the shape of the earth means that an eruption is coming and these images will give scientists much more data to work with.

The 1,500 volcanoes the team hope to be monitoring by the end of 2017 are known to have erupted in the last 12,000 years. It's important to go back such a long way because every couple of years a volcano erupts that has no record of having been active.

COMET's computing facility can spot changes of just a few millimetres around a volcano by comparing a sequence of pictures from Sentinel, although changes that pre-empt an eruption are likely to be much bigger. The technique is not new but this is the first major attempt to use it for forecasting.

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