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Will it erupt? Scientists monitor volcanoes with laser-based technique


The volcano on La Palma, Canary Islands, mid-eruption in 2021. (Image: R Balcells)

Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) have optimised a new technique to help predict the behaviour of volcanoes, which they say could save lives and property around the world.

The technique, detailed in Science Advances, is called ‘laser ablation inductively coupled plasma quadruple mass spectrometry’ and was trialled by Dr Teresa Ubide from UQ’s School of the Environment and a team of international collaborators. 

“It’s a mouthful, but this high-resolution technique offers clearer data on what’s chemically occurring within a volcano’s magma, which is fundamental to forecasting eruption patterns and changes," Dr Ubide said.

She added: “The chemical changes that occur within the liquid portion of the magma during a volcanic eruption are quite incredible. The magma is made up of liquid melt, gas and crystals that combine inside the volcano. There are often so many meddling crystals that the magma looks like rocky road, and it’s difficult to observe its chemistry. To get these crystals out of the way, we blast the cooled melt – which is known as the rock matrix – with a laser-like those used for eye surgery. Then we analyse the material by measuring its chemical make-up.”


The La Palma eruption covered more than 12 square kilometres with 159 cubic metres of lava destroying around 1,600 homes. Image: (Instituto Geologico y Minero de Espana)

Dr Ubide and the team tested the method on samples collected during the 2021 eruption on the Canary Island of La Palma, which lasted 85 days.

“The eruption covered more than 12 square kilometres with 159 cubic metres of lava destroying around 1,600 homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 7,000 people – it cost the country the equivalent of around $1.4 billion,” Dr Ubide said.

She added: “To understand how volcanic eruptions may evolve and to provide warnings and advice to people, live monitoring data is critical. Earthquakes, ground changes and gas data provide indirect information on what is happening inside an active volcano but the chemistry of the melt is a direct measure of the ‘personality’ of the magma, its behaviour upon eruption and its potential impact on populations and infrastructure. The information we gathered during this eruption could help inform volcano monitoring and hazard management in the future.”

The team is now trialling a similar technique on volcanic ash, which can be sampled more readily during a volcanic event.

“We are excited to collaborate with volcano observatories to implement the method as a monitoring tool,” Dr Ubide said.


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Environment, Chemistry, Life sciences

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