Scientists blast volcanoes with lasers to understand how they erupt

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The eruption could have caused lava flows (Image: Getty)

Scientists have developed a new technique to predict the behavior of volcanoes – using lasers to destroy lava from volcanoes’ “rocky roads”.

This pioneering approach involves the catchy method called “laser ablation inductively coupled plasma quadruple mass spectrometry.” However, an easier way to visualize is laser eye surgery.

Volcanoes are filled with magma and lava seeping from the mantle. When a volcano erupts, chemical reactions change the composition of the magma — called lava.

Dr Teresa Ubid of the University of Queensland called magma the “computer code” of volcanoes, providing vital information about how volcanoes erupt and where lava flows can occur. Not all eruptions are accompanied by lava flows, and there are different types of lava flows, depending on the viscosity or fluidity of the lava.

“The chemical changes that take place in the liquid part of the magma during an eruption are pretty incredible,” Dr Ubid said.

“Magma consists of liquid melt, gas and crystals that combine inside a volcano.

Lava is lava from the Earth’s mantle (Image: Getty/500px)

“Often there are so many interfering crystals that the magma looks like a rocky road and it’s difficult to observe its chemical composition. To remove these crystals, we use lasers similar to those used in eye surgery to spray the cooled melt (that is, the rock matrix) ).

“Then we analyze the material, measuring its chemical composition.”

Dr Ubide and her team tested the method on samples collected during the 85-day eruption of La Palma in 2021.

“The eruption spanned over 12 square kilometers and 159 cubic meters of lava destroyed some 1,600 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 people – costing the country around $1.4 billion,” Dr Ubid said.

Lava flows can wreak havoc on surrounding areas (Image: Getty)

“Real-time monitoring data is critical in order to understand how eruptions are evolving and to provide warnings and advice to people.

Seismic, ground change and gas data provide indirect information about what’s going on inside active volcanoes, but the chemical composition of the melt provides a direct measure of the “property” of magma, how it behaves when it erupts, and the potential impact on populations and infrastructure.

“The information we gathered during this eruption could help inform future volcano monitoring and disaster management.”

The team is currently experimenting with a similar volcanic ash technique that could allow for easier sampling of volcanic activity during periods of volcanic activity.

“We are delighted to be working with the Volcano Observatory to implement the method as a monitoring tool,” said Dr Ubid.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

Further information: A volcano kills 70,000 people. Then came a year without a summer. Will it happen again?

MORE: World’s most powerful volcanic eruption sets stunning records of different kinds