Predicting vulvanic eruptions


Yesterday I reported about the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Today I would like to present one of the winners with an interview. It is Andrew McGonigle. Many millions of people around the world live in the shadow of an active volcano, at risk of sudden death. Scottish physicist Andrew McGonigle is developing a reliable way to predict eruptions, using an unmanned, small-scale helicopter to measure gases that escape from the volcanic vent. His combination of science and advanced technology has the potential to save thousands of lives.

How did you become interested in volcanoes?
Even as a child, I was incredibly curious to know how the world works. In school I was really interested in physics and in geography too. There seemed no real way to marry them, so I decided to go with physics to understand the universe at its most fundamental level. But, all along, I wanted somehow to get back into the earth and environmental sciences. Amazingly, a position came up at Cambridge, where Clive Oppenheimer was looking for a physicist to monitor volcanic gas plumes. And I haven’t looked back since.

How many volcanoes have you visited?
I’ve worked on 15 volcanoes in Central America, the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea and Italy. I’ve also been involved in supplying instruments or with data analysis on many others. Among my experiences, visiting Herculaneum was very impressive. You have to physically climb down from the new city, Ercolano, near Naples, through the pyroclastic flow deposit, into the old Roman city below. That sandwich effect reminds you that history will be repeated at some point.

What is the appeal of volcanoes?
I find the whole scale of volcanoes absolutely awesome. They are these incredibly powerful phenomena that we cross at our peril. It is awe that drives you to be as far away from the volcano as possible whilst measuring. Volcanoes touch many aspects of society and art – they feature in poetry and in paintings like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, where the eerie red sky in the background is caused by the ash from Krakatoa.

What will you do after this method of detecting eruptions is up and working?
First we need to bed this method down, and mine the information it generates. Then we can combine this with all the other different signatures, such as seismic and ground deformation data. Fusing these together is so useful, as it reveals things you would not have seen before. That would be really valuable.

What will be your next field of volcanic research or innovation?

The other major technological project that I am working on concerns using ultraviolet cameras to measure SO2 emission rates, at a completely unprecedented time resolution of one or more measurements per second. This will allow us to study rapid volcanic effects, such as the explosions, which occur on Stromboli every ten minutes or so, through the lens of gas flux data for the first time. Given that these eruptions are driven by pressurised gases, this should allow us far more direct insights into this behaviour than possible hitherto. (Photos © RolexAwards/Marc Latzel)


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