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New volcano research moves closer to predicting eruptions


Research into how volcanoes erupt led by Durham University’s Earth Sciences Department is taking volcanologists a step closer to being able to predict when and on what scale volcanoes will erupt.

In the three-year EU Erupt Project, funded by almost half a million euros of EU Framework 5 funding, scientists from seven European universities are working on four volcanoes. They have developed new techniques to examine what happens underground before a volcano erupts and how magma develops and have made a considerable breakthrough in dating past geophysical events that preceded eruptions. A key set of clues comes from the study of cores and rims on crystals which have grown from the magmas, which can be read like tree rings.

Using this new technique, volcanologists can now correlate data from traditional volcanology – the study of deposits from past volcanoes (or ‘volcanic autopsy’) to date previous eruptions, with geophysics – which offers a real time snapshot of state of a volcanic system. For example the team working on Vesuvius dated a magmatic event which appears to correspond to the occurrence of an earthquake 17 years before the volcano famously erupted in AD79. The importance of this is that for the first time volcanologists can set a timescale on the impact of geophysical activity on magma systems and interpret the link to volcanic eruptions or hazards.

Professor Jon Davidson, from Durham University and Principal Investigator on ERUPT said: “These new techniques are helping us build up profiles for different volcano types, which will help volcanologists around the world understand better how magma works, its composition – what makes it more volatile – how it is stored and how and when it is likely to cause an eruption.”

The EU ERUPT Project (European Research on Understanding Processes and Timescales of Magma Evolution in Volcanic Systems), involves scientists from seven European universities, selected for their diverse range of expertise in volcanology with experience working with volcanic systems all over the world. The other institutions involved in the ERUPT Project are the University of Florence, University of Goettingen, Vesuvius Observatory (Naples), University of Leeds, CSIC (Barcelona) and University College, Dublin.

The team chose four European volcanoes to study for the project that represented a broad range of types of volcanoes in terms of size, frequency and intensity of eruption, from Stromboli with frequent relatively gentle eruptions, to Teide and Vesuvius with medium scale eruptions to Campi Flegrei representing the larger end of the scale. The techniques include examining crystals, rock textures and exhumed magma chambers, dating rocks and crystals and determining the pressures and temperatures of crystal growth and exchange between magmas.

The results of this research have been presented to the Italian civil authorities and a number of papers have been published in peer-review journals such as Journal of Petrology on various aspects of the project.

Jane Budge | alfa
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