Where, and When, Will the Next Volcano Erupt?

Volcanologist Andrew McGonigle is developing early-warning detection equipment for eruptions.

Volcanic eruptions are among nature’s biggest, most deadly spectacles. But determining when one of Earth’s 1,500 potentially active volcanoes might blow is both difficult and costly.

Scottish physicist and volcanologist Andrew McGonigle has spent the better part of two decades trying to improve the odds of forecasting eruptions. On average, an eruption occurs 50 times a year. Collectively, they've killed about 900 people since 1980, displaced or injured thousands more, and caused widespread economic and environmental losses.

McGonigle samples gas emissions on Italy's Vulcano island.

McGonigle’s research has focused largely on adapting and refining technology that could lessen the havoc of volcanic blasts.

Volcanic detective work centers on sensing techniques and on improving the 1970s-era correlation spectrometer, used to monitor sulphur dioxide levels. The correlation spectrometer weighs 44 pounds and costs about $60,000. McGonigle wrote computer software and defined hardware protocols enabling the use of compact, commercial-grade spectrometers that cost just $4,000 and weigh just 2.2 pounds.

Deployed in 25 countries so far, the ultraviolet spectrometers detect and image volcanic plumes by measuring background light absorbed by volcanic gases. Combined with other tests, such as seismic exams of ground deformations near a volcano, “it’s like diagnosing a disease in a patient,’’ says McGonigle, 42.

McGonigle prepares volcanic sensors before they're loaded on a remote-controlled helicopter.

“We still don’t really know the half of what the data will give us in terms of how a volcano changes. Combined with other diagnostics, we’re locking together strands of information—it’s a bit like a Rosetta Stone. We’re just trying to translate and understand what we see and gain further meaning.”

Like many Rolex Laureates, McGonigle developed a passion for science at an early age. Growing up in Edinburgh, he camped and ran cross-country near the extinct volcanoes in the Scottish Highlands.

Keen on physics and geography, he had an opportunity to combine both disciplines when a professor at the University of Cambridge offered him a job monitoring volcanic gas plumes. He went on to study more than 20 volcanoes.

“They’re all amazing,’’ McGonigle says. “Nothing prepares you when nature rips the earth’s crust apart and throws the innards out.”

McGonigle’s earlier fieldwork focused on using a remote-controlled helicopter and high-end cameras to measure volcanic gases in two Italian volcanoes, Etna and Stromboli. Now, aerial drones and mobile phone cameras are providing volcanologists a lower cost bird's-eye view.

“We’re gaining vantage points we couldn’t get otherwise,’’ McGonigle says.

McGonigle plans to explore Papua New Guinea’s active volcanoes in 2017. It’s part of the Ring of Fire along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, where most of the world’s volcanoes lie.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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