Irish scientists in ‘groundbreaking’ volcanic study to help predict eruptions

4 Mar 2021

Sierra Negra volcano. Image: Dr Andrew Bell/University of Edinburgh

Researchers from DIAS and TCD were part of a team that recorded the first detailed description of an eruption from one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

A volcanic eruption in the Galápagos Islands has given scientists fresh insight into how volcanoes behave and how future eruptions could be predicted.

Scientists based at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) were members of the international research team that made the discovery. The team includes researchers from Ireland, the UK, US, France and Ecuador.

In a study published this week in Nature Communications, the team revealed the first ever detailed description of a volcanic eruption from Sierra Negra – one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It is located on Isabela Island, the largest of the Galápagos Islands, which is home to nearly 2,000 people.

The findings of this research will help volcanologists track the evolution of unrest for future eruptions in the region, and communicate it to local authorities and the public.

“The data will be invaluable in improving volcano monitoring in Galápagos, where eruptions pose a risk to the unique and fragile ecosystem,” said Dr Michael Stock, assistant professor of geology at TCD.

“However, it also has far-reaching global implications, demonstrating that not all volcanoes are created equally. Our current understanding of volcano-monitoring data is largely based on well studied eruptions in Iceland and Hawaii, and may need to be urgently reassessed to effectively manage volcanic hazards in other locations.”

Due to the remote location, this is the first eruption on the Galápogos Islands to have been recorded by modern monitoring instruments.

‘Some groundbreaking results’

The researchers studied an eruption at Sierra Negra in June 2018, after 13 years of earthquakes and uplift of the surface marked the gradual accumulation of molten rock under the volcano. These were among the largest signals ever recorded at a volcano of this type before an eruption, scientists said.

The eruption continued for nearly two months, with strong earthquakes allowing new fissures to open, feeding lava flows that extended 16km to the coast. When the eruption finished, the hills within the 10km-wide caldera – the large hollow that forms after a volcano erupts – were nearly two metres higher than at the start.

Researchers said that this ‘caldera resurgence’ is important for understanding when and where eruptions happen – but the phenomenon is rare and has never been observed in such detail.

“We managed to examine the Sierra Negra volcano with an unprecedented level of detail, which has produced some groundbreaking results,” said Prof Chris Bean, head of the geophysics section and director of the School of Cosmic Physics at DIAS.

“Although the volcano had been slowly inflating for over a decade, the final trigger to the eruption was a violent earthquake strong enough to make anything that wasn’t tied down hop clear off the ground. Stress changes related to this event unzip subterranean fractures, through which magma flowed to the surface in a spectacular eruption.”

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic