Monitoring volcanic gas emissions: From innovation to operational application

3 February 2012


Report prepared by Tim Middleton.

This Cambridge Public Policy Seminar was given by Dr Clive Oppenheimer, Reader in Volcanology and Remote Sensing in the Department of Geography at Cambridge University and head of the Cambridge Volcanology Group, on 3 February 2012.

The recent Icelandic eruptions have catapulted volcanologists to the forefront of policymaking. The ash clouds from the back-to-back eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull and Grimsvotn played havoc with European air traffic. In other parts of the world, volcanic eruptions threaten not just flights, but people’s lives and livelihoods. So what can be done to predict these devastating eruptions? And how do we sensibly manage the risks?

Over the past few years, Dr Oppenheimer’s research has focused on ground-based methods of measuring volcanic gas emissions, particularly sulphur dioxide. He and his colleagues have tested compact UV spectrometers throughout the world, from the Caribbean island of Montserrat to the Antarctic volcano Mount Erebus. These instruments can measure the concentrations of different gases in a vertical slice through an eruption plume. By combining this with meteorological data, the total gas flux from the volcano can be calculated. If this equipment is installed at a volcano observatory and the data is combined data with satellite measurements and seismological observations, valuable information about impending eruptions can be obtained. In 2010, between 10 and 20 thousand people were successfully evacuated before the eruption of Mount Merapi on the Indonesian island of Java as the result of warning signs in these datasets.

Nonetheless, Dr Oppenheimer highlighted that there is still a big gap between the science and effective policy implementation. Globally, very few volcanoes are currently monitored and many active volcanoes aren’t necessarily even known about. Funding for this sort of research is haphazard: rather unfortunately a grant proposal submitted to the Natural Environment Research Council to study Icelandic volcanism, led by Dr Oppenheimer, was refused a few years before the first of the eruptions.

Dr Oppenheimer’s work also has other important applications. He and his colleagues have tested their instruments at the end of airport runways to monitor ground-level air quality, but there are as yet no studies to connect these observations to the incidence of respiratory diseases. Furthermore, sulphate aerosols released during large volcanic eruptions have the potential to enter the stratosphere, scattering shortwave radiation and causing a temporary cooling of the global climate. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo led to a 0.5°C temperature drop throughout the entire northern hemisphere in the year immediately following the eruption. Monitoring the emission of these aerosols is therefore a vital aspect of climate change research.

Plans for a global volcano monitoring network are in the pipeline. What is needed though, said Dr. Oppenheimer, is a globalisation of expertise: the UK has many world-class volcanologists and no active volcanoes. These people must work alongside organisations in less developed countries to install monitoring systems and implement hazard management strategies.

To see the full programme of Cambridge Public Policy Seminars, please follow the link here.

Banner image from Peter Hartree