Los Alamos researcher conducts volcanic voyeurism

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2002 - A researcher with the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory has spied on volcanoes from a distance to learn whether they give out subtle clues prior to erupting. He also learned that spying on volcanoes isn't always simple and straightforward. Los Alamos researcher Steve Love today outlined the triumphs and tribulations associated with using remote sensing techniques to study volcanic gases during a talk at the American Geophysical Union's spring meeting in Washington.

"Basically, after spending four years of taking infrared measurements of volcanic gases at volcanoes around the world, we've been fortunate enough to record a number of scientific surprises, as well as some pitfalls associated with our remote sensing techniques," said Love. "In order to get accurate measurements and trends, you need to take frequent measurements over an appropriately long period of time."

Using both infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers - instruments that allow researchers to see the spectral "fingerprints" of gaseous chemicals being discharged by volcanoes - Love and Los Alamos volcanologist Fraser Goff studied volcanoes at all points of the compass to learn whether the composition or volumes of volcanic gases change when an eruption is imminent.

Love and Goff so far have found one spectroscopic clue that may precede an eruption. At Mexico's Popocatpetl - an active, 17,800-foot volcano located about 50 miles southeast of Mexico City, home to 20 million people - the researchers found that the amount of silicon tetrafluoride gas being released increased noticeably relative to the amount of sulfur dioxide gas prior to eruption. The amount of silicon tetrafluoride dramatically increased just after the eruption and then quickly returned to pre-eruption levels hours later.

This detection gives the researchers hope that volcanoes really can put out a chemical semaphore that signals impending eruption.

Contact: James Rickman
DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

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