It sounds promising, but what happens if the satellites fail to predict a serious eruption? The case of the convicted but later exonerated Italian earthquake experts springs to mind.
A UK-led team of scientists is rolling out a project to monitor every land volcano on Earth from space, reports BBC News.
Two satellites will routinely map the planet’s surface, looking for signs that might hint at a future eruption. They will watch for changes in the shape of the ground below them, enabling scientists to issue an early alert if a volcano appears restless.
Some 1,500 volcanoes worldwide are thought to be potentially active, but only a few dozen are heavily monitored. One of these is Mount Etna where, last month, a BBC crew was caught up in a volcanic blast while filming a report on the new satellite project.
Before a volcano erupts, magma rises from deep beneath the Earth, causing the ground above to swell. It usually starts as a small movement on the flank of a volcano or in its caldera (crater). It may be barely noticeable to the eye, but it can be seen from space.
Regular satellite data recording this change will be processed automatically and an alert issued for scientists to follow up. A “red flag” would not mean an eruption is a given, but it ought to ensure those communities that live in the shadow of a volcano are not caught unawares if the situation deteriorates.
“It’s the volcanoes that are least monitored where this will have most impact. If people can be alerted ahead of time, it could save many lives,” said Prof Andy Hooper.
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The report concludes:
One of the big research questions for scientists is working out if and when a change in the shape of a volcano will lead to an eruption. It can be a long time between the two, perhaps years.
But the statistics suggest it is four times more likely that a volcano that deforms will erupt than one that has not changed its shape.
“It’s not a case that if you see deformation you should evacuate people tomorrow,” said Dr Biggs. “But what we desperately need is more examples, and that is where the Sentinel system is really important because we will be able to track all these volcanoes in a routine and systematic fashion.”
The aim is to have the satellite data on all 1,500 volcanoes being gathered and processed by the end of 2017.