Techniques have been proposed, developed and implemented to improve the monitoring of active volcanoes using radars that give operational warnings of eruptions and safe ‘all-clears’ following activity. To date, their use has been mainly in collaboration with the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and the local government civil protection committee on Montserrat. Early rescinding of a precautionary evacuation was made possible by these techniques in 2008 on the Soufri√®re Hills Volcano in Montserrat.

The Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading has a long-standing programme of work directed to developing new methods of measuring the dynamism of volcanic activity and incorporating these measurements into models that can be used to mitigate the resultant hazards.

Research at Reading has involved the development and interpretation of radars for various applications, including monitoring weather conditions, and in the application of remote-sensing data from space. This research uses the concept of using radars on the ground and in space to monitor the state of active volcanoes. These two strands of research have been bought together so that the ground-based radars give continuous monitoring of volcanic activity, while each overpass of the satellites can be used to better define areas at risk during an eruption.

The ground-based radars were developed in collaboration with the University of St Andrews and University of Lancaster, and the space-based radars with DLR (German Aerospace Centre), Astrium (Europe’s largest space company) and ESA (European Space Agency).

Impact

Without this work, the means to continuously monitor many active volcanoes would not exist. Many volcanoes dominate the lives of the population living nearby, and the means to generate both reliable warnings and all-clears, are vital contributions to their safety, quality of life and to the local economy.

The techniques proposed, developed and implemented during this research to improve the monitoring of active volcanoes using radars have helped to safeguard the lives of the inhabitants of Montserrat. Based on a variety of monitoring and instrumentation, Montserrat Volcanic Observatory (MVO) can now initiate a warning procedure that starts with notifying the police, who sound warning sirens, and continues with a phone and text message cascade to notify all the relevant authorities and civil protection agencies who are trained in the appropriate response.

It was always the intention of this work to effectively transfer the technology to MVO. As of 2011, both the space-borne and the ground-based radar techniques are now part of MVO operations. Although early rescinding of a precautionary evacuation was made possible by these techniques in 2008, no event has yet tested the eruption early-warning capability of the radars; however, the current deployment of such instrumentation shows that the system provides a capability for more advanced and timely warnings than was available during the last major eruption in 2009-10.

Funding

The research to develop, apply and test the technology was funded through a series of NERC grants. Montserrat Volcanic Observatory have subsequently contributed approximately £50,000 over a period of 10 years in the form of laboratory use, staff time and helicopter flights for testing and calibration.

Research led by Professor Geoff Wadge

First published: June 2015

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