Want to see inside a volcano? Send for VolcanoBot – that’s one option scientists can now use, as E&T Magazine reports.
Exactly 200 years after the biggest recorded volcanic eruption in history, scientists are using robots and UAVs to unlock the secrets of today’s volcanoes.
Two hundred years ago this year, Mount Tambora erupted on Sumbawa, a remote island in the south of Indonesia. The eruption began on 5 April 1815 and reached its climax five days later. A series of smaller steam-driven eruptions continued for the next three years as magma heated ground and surface water.The island lost all its vegetation, most of its animal life and around 10,000 people. Many tens of thousands more perished in the famine and disease epidemics that hit the surrounding islands in the aftermath. No one knows the exact number of deaths, but it is thought to be between 50,000 and 100,000.
This was the largest eruption in recorded history. It was a ‘7’ on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one place below the apocalyptic Yellowstone eruption of 640,000 BC, with four times as much energy as the 1883 Krakatoa explosion. The Tambora eruption shot 150 cubic kilometres of rock, dust and gas into the atmosphere. It caused tsunamis locally and affected the weather as far away as London and New York. When it finally stopped, one-third of the great volcano that once stood 4,440m had become rubble and ash.
Mount Tambora is still active; there have been two small, non-explosive eruptions in 1967 and 2011, and Indonesia’s Geological Disaster Mitigation and Volcanology Centre monitors the volcano.
Monitoring a volcano is one thing. Predicting when an eruption might happen in time to evacuate the island of its 1.3 million inhabitants is more difficult.
“We are better at predicting volcano eruptions than we are predicting earthquakes, but not as good as we are at predicting the weather,” says volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge University. “You can’t stop a volcano going off, but if you know more about what’s going on under the ground you can take measures that reduce the impact.”
According to the US Geological Survey there are about 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide, many of them along the Pacific Rim in what is known as the Ring of Fire. Around 500 of these have erupted in historical time. The biggest recent eruption took place in Chile in June 2011. The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle ash cloud reached over 3,600m and 353 people died.
A warning from the past [from the report]:
Clive Oppenheimer thinks it will be a while before robots and drones are widely used in volcanoes around the world, though. He remembers using a robot to explore a volcano in Antarctica way back in the 1980s. The robot had only gone three metres when the cable snapped. It turns out it was too cold. “Volcanoes are rough and dirty places,” he says. “You need robust equipment that can run off a car battery. The technology must be smaller and rugged.”