Coup for 'coffee jar' monitor

October 11, 1996

British scientists hope to use data from the eruption of a volcano in Iceland last week to predict volcanic hyperactivity months before an eruption.

For the team from the University of Durham, the timing of Bardhabunga's eruption under 600 metres of ice was "like winning the lottery". It came just weeks after 30 state-of-the-art seismic monitoring stations had been set up throughout the country. The monitoring device closest to the eruption is just two kilometres from the volcano.

Researchers from Durham, with the help of scientists from the United States and Iceland, will collect vital data once helicopters can penetrate the fog of ash, snow and 120 kilometre-an-hour winds enveloping the area.

Gillian Foulger, lecturer in the department of geological studies and leader of the Pounds 1.5 million project, said she expects to gather the best information ever recorded on an eruption.

"We have been using a very new device which makes it possible to study vulcanic activity in great detail," she said. "We are trying to find out what depths the magma comes from and if can we find precursors that will predict an eruption."

The new monitoring device, which weighs two kilogrammes and is the size of a jar of coffee, is a broadband seismometer, designed to record all frequencies of ground vibrations.

Its precursor could only pick up one frequency at a time and had the dimensions of a large domestic oven.

Before starting the experiment, Dr Foulger knew there was a 30 per cent chance of an eruption occurring at some point during the two-and-a-half-year project, but a major explosion at the very start of the experiment and so close to a monitoring station is a coup.

"Fortunately no one lives on the icecap, so the volcano did not cause a major disaster," said Dr Foulger. "But when they erupt close to cities, there can be terrible damage when you don't know about them in advance.

"We hope to learn from one remote volcano and apply our knowledge to all volcanoes near cities by predicting eruptions perhaps some months before they happen," she said.

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