We can use drones to get in and learn more about active gas volcanoes

An overhead view of a volcano crater in East Java, Indonesia. credit: shutterstock

Volcanic eruptions cannot be predicted with 100% certainty. However, the details of an upcoming eruption can be estimated using the hot, foul-smelling gases produced by the volcano.

These gases provide clues about the timing, duration, or intensity of upcoming eruptions that can help Local authorities Determine if and when surrounding communities need to evacuate.

On average, there Up to 50 volcanoes Actively erupt on the planet at any time. It is likely that many of these volcanoes spew hot gases – such as steam and Carbon Dioxide—from lava. Synthesizing these gases is key to understanding the mysterious ways volcanoes, but they can be dangerous.

Currently, Drones make it safer And easier than ever.

gas volcanoes

For the better part of the past decade, I’ve been visiting such gas volcanoes regularly to capture them before, during, or after an eruption.

I’ve worked with other scientists and engineers Measurement of volcanic gases With a variety of devices connected to the drones.

Our latest research uses drones to Capturing volcanic carbon dioxide at the Boa volcano in Costa Rica. We measured the carbon isotopes of carbon dioxide and discovered a pattern in the way that chemical fingerprints change during different stages of activity.

Unique carbon makeup

Carbon dioxide is everywhere: in the air we exhale, in vehicle exhaust – and dissolved in magma. At volcanoes, magma escapes to the surface through fissures and hydrothermal systems (such as geysers in Yellowstone National Park), by seeping through the soil or by blowing into a column of gas.

By getting a sample of this volcanic carbonwe can measure the stable carbon isotope ratio, a unique chemical formula that reflects the source and pathway of carbon dioxide2 took the surface.

All volcano All over the world produce a unique set of these Carbon isotopes that change when the volcanic system changes.

However, it took a long time to collect each sample when the researchers needed to hike into the crater, putting them at risk every second they remain in the danger zone. With the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS, also known as drones), researchers have begun to send these machines into danger zones.

We can use drones to get in and learn more about active gas volcanoes

A drone equipped to sample volcanic gas captures carbon dioxide. Credit: Fiona Darcy, author provided

Use of drones

To do this, we used switches and electronic parts to connect the gas sensors to the communications systems on board the drones. volcanic carbon dioxide2 It would be sucked up through a series of tubes with the help of a pump and sensors that would send a signal to the pilot when we got into the gas column. With the click of a button on a key remote controlthe pilot can choose – from a safe distance— When and where to collect the gas sample.

We arrived in Costa Rica in April 2019 with our shiny new drone installation, which we launched over the edge of the Poás Volcano and which crashed almost instantly. Fortunately, our team came up with a quick fix for the second drone – a pump and switch hanging from the drone in a wash bag. It worked flawlessly.

To avoid further losses, we approached the hole and assembled our group just above it. Later that day, we looked at the stable isotopes of carbon in the drone samples and in samples we took from Earth. After we accounted for mixing with normal air in the drone samples, the results were strikingly similar. Our drone assembly worked!

pattern appears

When we started compiling our data using all of the carbon isotopes that had been measured at Poás volcano in the past, we noticed a trend in how the isotopic balance shifted when the volcano was behaving differently.

During volcanic phases, when Poás was making wet eruptions releasing extremely hot, sulfur-rich gas, the carbon isotopes declined to lighter values. Meanwhile, during the quieter phases When the volcano was closedisotopic equilibrium increased to heavier values.

With this new vision, we can look back even more and bring our data together Isotope data from an older activity. We have seen that this pattern has been repeating itself, with carbon isotopes alternating between heavy and light values ​​over the past 20 years of activity in Poás. There were relatively heavy values ​​when the volcano was closed and there were relatively light values ​​when the volcano was open.

We now have a blueprint for warning signs to look out for in the future Carbon isotopes Sampling this volcano as it prepares to erupt.

future research

Thanks to drones, we’ve captured the first of carbon dioxide2 From the Poás volcano since 2014. The volcanic gases before our work were sampled manually by brave volcanologists climbing into the Poás crater. These campaigns were few and far between.

Hopefully with the start of gas pickup Dronesand carbon dioxide in volcanoes Frequent sampling can be started. This will fill in the gaps in the timeline and help us understand and predict volcanic eruptions.

Gas degassing data indicates that Mount Etna began showing signs of pressure buildup months before the 2018 eruption

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