Predicting volcanic eruptions has come a long way. With advances in technology, scientists are now able to better predict eruptions. However, these predictions are not always as accurate at all times as earthquake forecasts. But that might change soon. A group of researchers have developed a new technique they call the volcanological “holy grail” that can accurately predict eruptions.
The new technique involves the study of ancient lava crystals that are the result of previous eruptions. To that end, volcanologists turned to the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. They studied samples of crystals that formed in the rocks that Kilauea spewed out during the 1959 eruption. Scientists believe that by combining the crystal’s usual forms and computer simulations, underground magma flows and subsequent eruptions can be predicted.
“I have always had the suspicion that these crystals are much more interesting and important than ours. We can actually deduce the quantitative attributes of the pre-eruption flow from these crystal data and learn about the processes that lead to non-drilling eruptions into the volcano,” said Jenny Suckale, Professor of geophysics at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.
‘Holy Grail in Volcanology’
Suckale said it was a chance encounter. After listening to a presentation by Stanford graduate Michelle DiBenedetto on microplastics in the oceans, she realized that a similar theory could be applied to the orientation of the strange crystals in scoria, a dark, porous rock that forms after lava cools. In the oceans, waves cause non-spherical particles and form strange but consistent patterns. Suckale observed a similarity in the pattern at Kilauea.
This pattern is created by two waves of magma flow below the surface that move in two directions at once. Instead of flowing through a channel, a hollow column in the middle of the volcano, Suckale says that one stream “moves directly over another.” During an eruption, when the lava reaches the surface, it cools down, trapping olivine crystals, a green mineral. Due to the fast process, the crystals failed to grow, just as happened at the time of the eruption.
“To me, it is the Holy Grail in volcanology. I have always suspected that these crystals are much more interesting and important than we thought they were,” said Suckale, senior author of the study published in Science Advances Dec. 4. .
This could open up new techniques for predicting eruptions. Previously, researchers speculated that crystals could form inside cooled lava rock. But without direct access to liquid channels, they have no conclusive evidence. Now, they believe that tracking the misorientation of crystals during future eruptions could be the key to understanding flow conditions.
“Nobody knows when the next episode will start or how bad it will be and it all depends on the detailed dynamics of the channel,” Suckale said adding that the data will help in advancing future research. “If I can measure waves, I can limit the flow of magma and these crystals allow me to reach those waves,” he added.