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  • Writer's pictureAryan Shah

A step forward in volcanic emission observation

University College London (UCL) led team have developed drones capable of measuring the sulphur-dioxide levels emitted from volcanoes.

They focus their research on the Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea because it is quite an inaccessible (volcanic island) and active volcano.

In the case of an active volcano, alongside remote sensors such as seismometers and tilt meters, a combination of aerial sensors as well as satellite measurements give fairly accurate results and "richer data" on the extent of global Carbon cycle contribution of such volcanoes.

Previous studies indicate its high potency in Sulphur Dioxide production, however its Carbon Dioxide emissions were somewhat a myth, until now...

As you can see in this figure below, there is a positive correlation between SO2 ppm and CO2 ppm, so we can to some extent use one of the two to extrapolate figures of the other.

But, with anything, the production of such technology can be expensive, which is why attempting 'beyond-line-of-sight' flights is quite risky. Hence, the emphasis of adding cameras to these drones.

What is so special about these drones? They added spectrometers and gas sensors (such as radon) to the drones to collect gas samples to be analysed later in a laboratory; a safe way to take measurements without putting any lives at risk.

Capturing data from above really reduces the uncertainty that you can get with ground measurements - it gives a more accurate representation and idea of 'plume chemistry and carbon isotope composition'.

But what about using tools such as COSPEC, correlation spectrometers which can measure the gas content of plumes - it can even be used remotely on the water, a kilometre or so away from Manam as it makes vertical traverses through the plume being 'blown horizontally by the wind'.

According to the BBC, "some 80% of Papua New Guinea's people live in rural areas with few or no facilities of modern life". Furthermore, many tribes are located "in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with... the outside world and live within an economy dependent on subsistence agriculture".

Therefore, it's low-income country (LIC) economic status implies that it is not adequately equipped to prepare its population let alone predict imminent volcanic hazards.

This is one of the limitations behind their developmental status, the fact that there are not enough resources to prepare their population for such hazards, by disseminating warnings, formulating evacuation plans and policies, making bunkers and shelters.

In addition, Papua New Guinea lies on a deadly plate boundary, the Australian-Pacific convergent boundary, where the Pacific subducts beneath the Australian (as the Pacific is oceanic and denser than the lighter, continental Australian plate).

This increases its vulnerability factor, suggesting its low economic status as well as its position on the plate boundary make it a recipe for disaster.

This is why institutions such as UCL are really helping to reduce and mitigate the impacts of volcanic eruptions in the long run, by aiding in prediction and monitoring of volcanoes, and therefore preparedness of populations in Papua New Guinea.

I think this example really just highlights how many people there are on this planet with inadequate resources to protect themselves and others from such horrifying disasters. It's great to see research teams such as those at UCL and many other institutions making a real difference to the livelihoods of others.


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