Why scientists are sending drones into the plumes of active volcanoes

Monitoring active volcanoes across the world to send out early warnings before they erupt is a challenging undertaking. But scientists are now tapping into drone technology to help them predict eruptions more easily.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Mexico have designed specially-adapted drones to help gather data from the Manam Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The drones have been developed with the purpose of enabling local communities to monitor nearby volcanos and create more accurate predictions of future eruptions. Their measurements could also enable scientists to learn more about some of the most inaccessible, highly active volcanoes in the world and how they contribute to the global carbon cycle.

Measuring volcanic gas emissions is one of the few ways scientists can forecast when a volcano is going to blow. Changes in volcanic emissions of gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) can help detect the ascent of hot magma to the surface and expulsion of CO2-rich emissions that reportedly precede big eruptions.

While in PNG, the research team proceeded to test two types of long-range drones equipped with gas sensors, cameras, and other devices. The drones managed to safely fly over Manam’s billowing plumes and measure its volcanic emissions in a relatively accurate way. The volcano’s steep slopes make it incredibly dangerous to even contemplate collecting such data on foot.

Integrating their drone measurements with satellite data, the researchers were able to show that Manam ranks among the top 10 strongest degassing volcanoes in the world, emitting an estimated 3,700 tons of CO2 and roughly 5,100 tons of SO2 each day – higher than previous estimates.

Our novel approach – that is, long-range and high-altitude [drone] operations enabling in situ measurements – is presently the only feasible means by which we can characterize gas chemistry at steep, hazardous, and highly active volcanoes like Manam,” the research team concluded in their paper.

In the future, the novel technology could help scientists create more accurate volcanic profiles of the world’s most active volcanoes, creating more accurate eruption predictions and potentially saving lives as a result.

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