The world’s first volcanic eruption alert system has been developed

As reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research

Being able to give the alarm quickly in emergency situations makes the difference. If the emergency is nothing less than the largest active volcano in Europe, Etna, which is preparing for one of its famous explosions, it is easy to understand the usefulness of timely information on what is about to happen.

The world’s first early warning system of a volcanic eruption, capable of remotely alerting an hour before the explosion of the volcano, is the result of ten years of research and field work of the team from the Department of Earth Sciences, led by Maurizio Ripepe, researcher of Geophysics of the solid earth. The full report in a recent article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (“Infrasonic Early Warning System for Explosive Eruptions” doi: 10.1029 / 2018JB015561), taken up by Nature News [Nature 563, 456–457 (2018) doi: 10.1038] / d41586–018–07420-y].

“What we have developed and tested in these years — explains Ripepe — is not a tool for forecasting eruptions, but a rapid warning of an explosion that is under way. When a volcano enters a phase of unstable dynamics, the development of which will almost certainly result in an eruption, it enters a phase of strong degassing that eject into the atmosphere gas and lava fragments,” continues Ripepe.” This activity, even before the volcano explodes, generates infrasound, that is, low-frequency sounds, below 20 Hz, which are not audible to human ears but travel very far and are collected by sensors placed on the volcano but also hundreds of kilometers away. These transmit their data to laboratories that can process them in real time and give the alarm.”

The monitoring, carried out with funding from the National Civil Protection, is operative on Etna since 2015; the alarm system automatically sends text messages and e-mails to the Civil Protection Department, on average about an hour before the explosion. “This is the average time of preparation for the volcano before the eruption — comments Ripepe. These results have been obtained in the last ten years from the observation of about 60 explosions. Such warning can be decisive for the safety not only of those who live near the volcano but also for air traffic. Suffice it to say that the ashes of an explosion are dispersed in the atmosphere up to hundreds of kilometers away and that the engines of an airplane can block down when they enter a cloud of volcanic ash.” The University of Florence system for the monitoring of volcanoes is now being tested on Icelandic volcanoes, including the famous Eyjafjalljökull, whose 2010 eruption caused the blocking of European air traffic for several weeks.