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Saturday, November 27, 2021

New research could pave the way to improved volcanic eruption forecasting

CONVERSE seeks to foster communication, facilitate effective volcano science during eruptions

By SONORA SLATER — science@theaggie.org

You wake up, roll out of bed to shut off your alarm and pull up the weather app to check the forecast for the day like you do every morning. Seventy-two degrees, light rain in the afternoon and wind gusts northeast at 6 mph — oh, and a 35% chance for volcanic eruption between 3-5 p.m. 

This degree of specific forecasting technology might seem like a bit of a stretch, but according to a recent press release, new work by the Community Network for Volcanic Eruption Response (CONVERSE), seeks to improve predictive models of volcanic activity and facilitate more effective volcano science.

Kari Cooper, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Davis and disciplinary leader in petrology and geology for CONVERSE, explained that much of the data required to build forecasting models as well as simply to better understand volcanic activity needs to be collected during an eruption rather than before or after. However, this can be difficult to execute when the majority of resources are focused on protecting property and lives. 

“During an eruption, the US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists’ mandate is for eruption mitigation and hazards and communicating with the public,” Cooper said. “So they don’t have extra resources or extra time to do science that’s not focused on those specific goals. But there’s a lot of science that could be done and needs to be done when an eruption is actually happening that really then feeds into […] moving us closer to more probabilistic eruption forecasting.” 

Cooper went on to explain that CONVERSE was designed to tackle this problem, bringing together USGS scientists and academics to put procedures and policies into place to better facilitate volcano science and encourage research with a diverse array of goals.

“During an eruption, academic scientists get excited about the research possibilities and then everybody tries to get involved,” Cooper said. “And prior to this, the way to get involved was to email somebody that you knew or some contact that you found at the relevant volcano observatory and then volunteer or try to get involved in that way. And that, as you can imagine, leads to people in the observatories being barraged by emails and not being able to respond. They just don’t have the time and energy to deal with these requests.”

 CONVERSE seeks to solve this challenge in part through what they call “scientific advisory committees,” which will help channel requests from academics during the time leading up to an eruption. 

“The idea with the advisory committee is that this is a body that helps facilitate those communications, and […] talk about what really is feasible, what is realistic to get done,” Cooper said. 

According to Tobias Fischer, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico and volcanic gas disciplinary leader for CONVERSE, the advisory committee for each volcanic eruption will do this through accepting rapid proposals.

“[The committee will] evaluate proposals by the community in terms of how scientifically important it is and how important it is to get samples or data right away,” Fischer said. “It’s just a one-page proposal that anyone can submit to the committee, and that committee evaluates it very quickly, and then finetunes the proposal so the work can get done. We really opened up the possibility for anyone to submit proposals, to participate, to collect samples, to collect data.” 

Cooper explained that one of the goals of building this sort of structure is to allow for diversity in every form within the research happening during an eruption.

“When you do all of this off-the-cuff, so to speak, the people who end up doing the science are the ones who have these pre-existing connections,” Cooper said. “It’s completely natural because […] there isn’t time to build those relationships during a crisis. I think that having a structure in place that focuses on building those kinds of relationships outside of a crisis […] will really improve the diversity both scientifically and in terms of the people involved for the science that gets done during the crisis.” 

Fischer also spoke to the importance of diversity, specifically mentioning interdisciplinary science and the importance of outside perspectives. 

“Bringing in completely new disciplines like computer science or robotics — scientists that are really into the engineering component or computer coding component or machine learning component, get those scientists involved,” Fischer said. “Focusing some of their attention on volcano science would be great for the discipline I think, because we would possibly make some great advances that we didn’t even think about because we didn’t have the right skills to ask the right questions.”

Peter La Femina, an associate professor of geosciences at The Pennsylvania State University and the deformation disciplinary leader for CONVERSE, explained that this process and the scientific advisory committees have been tested multiple times, both through the real eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii last year and through a “mock eruption scenario” set up by CONVERSE.

“What we did […] was we developed an eruption scenario that we did not let the participants know ahead of time,” La Femina said. “Basically we made a mock eruption; that includes getting synthetic data, synthetic warnings on the lead-up to the eruption and not telling people what volcano you’re going to do or anything about it. The idea is that it’s fresh and it’s essentially like it’s happening in real time.”

La Femina elaborated on the goal of this mock eruption. 

“The whole idea is to really maximize the scientific benefits from studying a volcanic eruption,” La Femina said. “[So we] run these scenarios to give people practice on how to make those interactions work and really just think about, what are the fundamental science questions that we want to come out of studying these active volcanic eruptions or active volcanoes in general?”

According to Cooper, many of these fundamental questions involve studying the three main ways that scientists currently monitor active volcanoes: seismic activity or earthquakes, volcanic gases and ground deformation. Although technology used to study these has improved significantly, especially over the past decade, Cooper said that these three monitoring signals will likely remain essential to volcano science in the future.

“Using a combination of artificial intelligence and new modeling capabilities, we are going to be able to start forecasting eruptions better,” La Femina said. “I would hesitate to say that we could say, ‘OK, on Nov. 22 at 2:15, X Volcano is going to erupt,’ because they’re very complex systems, and we don’t really understand all the complexities. But I think we’ll be able to say, within this time window it’s possible that an eruption is going to happen.” 

Cooper ended by saying that while CONVERSE is currently a temporary organization, she believes that a permanent establishment of this nature needs to be created.

“If we want to, as a society, try to understand the volcanoes that are in our country and the hazards and how we manage and mitigate their hazards, then we need to have some sort of an ongoing structure to help facilitate this,” Cooper said. “And so, CONVERSE going forward is looking at ways in which we could set up maybe a more permanent structure that could perform a lot of these same roles, on a longer-term basis.” 

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

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