Specially adapted drones developed by an international team led by UCL have collected data on volcanoes never before explored that will allow local communities to better predict future eruptions.
Cutting-edge research on the Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea is improving scientists’ understanding of how volcanoes contribute to the global carbon cycle, which is key to sustaining life on Earth.
The team’s results, published in Science Advances, show for the first time how it is possible to combine measurements of air, land and space to learn more about the most inaccessible volcanoes and the most active people on the planet.
The ABOVE project involved specialists from the UK, US, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, covering volcanology and aerospace engineering.
They co-created solutions to the challenges of measuring gas emissions from active volcanoes, using modified long-range drones.
By combining in situ aerial measurements with results from satellites and remote ground sensors, researchers can pull together a much richer data set than ever before. This allows them to remotely monitor active volcanoes, improving understanding of the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is released by volcanoes around the world and, above all, where this carbon comes from.
With a diameter of 10 km, the Manam volcano is located on an island 13 km off the northeast coast of the continent, at an altitude of 1,800 m.
Previous studies have shown that it is among the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide in the world, but nothing was known about its CO2 go out.
Volcanic CO2 emissions are difficult to measure due to the high concentrations in the background atmosphere. Measurements should be collected very close to active vents, and on dangerous volcanoes like Manam, drones are the only safe way to get samples. Yet drone flights beyond line of sight have rarely been attempted in volcanic environments.
By adding miniaturized gas sensors, spectrometers and sampling devices that automatically trigger to open and close, the team was able to fly the drone 2 km high and 6 km away to reach the top of Manam, where they captured gas samples for analysis within hours.
Calculating the ratio of sulfur and carbon dioxide levels in a volcano’s emissions is essential in determining the likelihood of an eruption to occur, as it helps volcanologists establish the location of its magma.
The last major eruptions in Manam between 2004 and 2006 devastated large parts of the island and displaced the population of around 4,000 people to the mainland; their crops destroyed and water supplies contaminated.
Project leader Dr Emma Liu (UCL Earth Sciences) said: “Manam has not been studied in detail, but we could see from satellite data that it was producing strong emissions. The resources of the country’s Volcanoes Monitoring Institute are small and the team has an incredible workload, but they have really helped us connect with the community living on the Isle of Manam. “
After the fieldwork, the researchers raised funds to purchase computers, solar panels and other technology to enable the local community – which has since formed a disaster preparedness group – to communicate via satellite since then. island and provide drone operations training to Rabaul Volcanic Observatory staff to assist in their surveillance efforts.
ABOVE was part of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), a global community of scientists in a decade-long quest to better understand carbon on Earth.
Volcanic emissions are a critical stage in the Earth’s carbon cycle – the movement of carbon between the earth, the atmosphere, and the ocean – but CO2 measurements have so far been limited to a relatively small number of the estimated 500 degassing volcanoes worldwide.
Understanding the factors that control volcanic carbon emissions today will reveal how the climate has changed in the past and therefore how it may respond to current human impacts in the future.
Co-author Prof. Alessandro Aiuppa (University of Palermo) described the results as “a real breakthrough in our field”, adding: “Ten years ago you could only have looked and guessed what CO by Manam2 the shows were.
“If you factor in all the carbon released by global volcanism, it’s less than one percent of the total emissions budget, which is dominated by human activity. In a few centuries, humans will behave like thousands of volcanoes. If we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, it will make it even more difficult to monitor and predict eruptions using aerial gas observations. “
Co-author Professor Tobias Fischer (University of New Mexico) added, “In order to understand the drivers of climate change, you need to understand the carbon cycle in the earth.
“We wanted to quantify the carbon emissions of this very large emitter of carbon dioxide. We had very little data in terms of the isotopic composition of carbon, which would allow us to identify the source of the carbon and whether it is the mantle, crust or sediment. We wanted to know where this carbon is coming from. “