These drones, specially designed and equipped by an international team led by University College London (UCL), will predict future volcanic eruptions better.
Cutting-edge research is being carried out on the volcanic island of Manam in Papua New Guinea and is giving scientists a better understanding of how volcanoes contribute to the global carbon cycle, essential for life on Earth.
The team’s results, published in the scientific journal Science Advances, show for the first time how the combination of aerial, ground, and space measurements can learn more about the most inaccessible and active volcanoes on the planet.
The project involved the participation of specialists in volcanology and aerospace engineering from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
Together, they found solutions to the challenges of measuring gas emissions from active volcanoes, through the use of modified long-range drones.
By combining aerial measurements taken on-site with results from satellites and remote ground sensors, researchers can collect a much larger data set than ever before. This allows them to monitor remotely active volcanoes, improving the estimate of how much carbon dioxide (CO2) is released by volcanoes around the world and, more importantly, where that carbon comes from.
Previous studies have shown that volcanoes are among the largest natural emitters of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the world, but little was known about their CO2 production.
Volcanoes emit carbon dioxide (CO2) in two ways: during eruptions and via underground magma.
Emissions of CO2 from volcanic sources are difficult to measure due to high concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. Drones are the only way to safely measure volcanic CO2 emissions, as measurements must be collected very close to the volcanic chimneys and into the craters.
By adding miniaturized gas sensors, spectrometers and sampling devices that open and close automatically, the team was able to fly drones 2 km high and 6 km away to reach the summit of Manam, where they captured samples of gas that they were able to analyze in a few hours.
Calculating the ratio of sulfur and carbon dioxide levels in a volcano’s emissions is essential in determining the likelihood of an eruption, as it helps volcanologists determine the location of its magma.
Dr. Emma Liu (from the Department of Earth Sciences at UCL), the project leader, said: ‘Volcanic emissions are an essential step in the Earth’s carbon cycle, that is, the movement of carbon between the Earth, the atmosphere and the ocean. But so far, CO2 measurements were made on a relatively small number of the 500 or so volcanoes that emit gas worldwide.’
Professor Tobias Fischer (University of New Mexico), co-author of the book, added, “To understand the drivers of climate change, we need to understand the carbon cycle on Earth.”
‘We hope to better understand what is happening in volcanoes and also improve our ability to predict the dates and strength of future eruptions,’ concluded volcanologist Emma Liu.
In a few centuries, humans will act like thousands of volcanoes.