October 10, 2008

Scientists Recreate Volcanoes In The Lab

A new development in which scientists have successfully recreated the conditions of an erupting volcano may shed light on new methods of predicting eruptions.

Active volcanoes produce a mix of seismic signals or small earthquakes that can indicate an eruption, but interpreting their significance is notoriously difficult.

Researchers Philip Benson of University College London and colleagues took rock from Sicily's Mount Etna found that small-scale simulations of volcanic activity could be scaled up and related to real events.

Fractures of 50 mm in the lab translated into about 200 meters in nature, researchers reported in the journal Science Thursday.

The lab tests have given researchers an unprecedented method of interpreting the combination of seismic signals.

The team reproduced the stresses found inside a volcano by forcing water through drilled cylinders of basalt, at pressures typically found 2.5 km (1.6 miles) underground, and then released it suddenly.

"We can better forecast eruptions and the different cycles of eruptions with better time accuracy as we understand more about the physical mechanisms that go on," said Benson.

Luigi Burlini of the Institute of Geology in Zurich and Giulio Di Toro of Italy's University of Padua said such experiments made it possible to study stress mechanisms separately -- effectively allowing scientists to identify different "instruments" in the seismic "orchestra."

"This understanding should allow for better predictions of the intensity and timing of volcanic eruptions, so that early warning and alerts can save lives," they wrote in a commentary in Science.


Image Caption: Etna's 2002 eruption, photographed from the ISS. (NASA)


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