Using Satellites to Help Predict Volcanic Eruptions

Unlike most other geohazards, many volcanic eruptions are presaged by unrest lasting a few hours to months. Satellites can help monitor this activity. Using just satellite observations, two manifestations of pre-eruptive unrest have been measured—ground deformation, or change in shape, and changes in surface temperature. Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of known deforming volcanoes, from 44 globally in 1997 to 226 today. Thermal anomaly detections are also increasing due to higher resolution data, from eight to more than 35 in southern South America alone.

Matthew E. Pritchard, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and his collaborators are exploiting this explosion of data to understand the significance of these deformation and thermal anomalies for future eruptions. They are asking key questions: If a volcano deforms or changes temperature, when does it indicate an impending eruption and when does it not? When a volcano erupts without a deformation or thermal precursor, is it due to the lack of detection or a true reflection of a volcano without reliable precursors?

To answer these questions, Pritchard and his team—with members from the United States Geological Survey, University of Miami, Penn State University, University of Bristol, and others—are optimizing the detection of deformation and thermal anomalies through the full use of the international constellation of civilian satellites and ancillary datasets. This will improve understanding of the significance of detected deformation and thermal anomalies. Pritchard is also investigating the utility of these satellite observations for routine operations by those governmentally responsible for volcano monitoring.

In a beta test, his team will leverage international data access and scientific coordination afforded by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) volcano pilot project to monitor more than 300 Holocene age volcanoes in Latin America. The end goal is to develop an integrated, international, remote-sensing monitoring effort for disaster risk management. 

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$600 Thousand spanning 3 years

Sponsored by

Other Research Sponsored by National Aeronautics and Space Administration