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Grant for new volcano hazard warning system

Scottish physicists have been awarded a quarter of a million pounds to develop a new instrument for measuring volcanoes which will give improved hazard warning to communities living nearby.

The Natural Environment Research Council award is part of a £300,000 project between the Universities of Reading, Lancaster and St Andrews to measure and model the collapse of volcanic domes.

Certain types of volcano, such as the one on the British dependency of Montserrat in the West Indies, grow domes of lava at the summit as new magma is forced up from within the earth. Eventually these lava domes become unstable and collapse, resulting in a “pyroclastic flow” of deadly hot rocks and ash which pours down the mountainside obliterating anything in its path. The mechanisms for how these domes grow and subsequently collapse are currently not well understood. To date, experimental observations have been limited due to the poor weather commonly encountered in mountainous areas and, of course, during periods of eruptive behaviour.

To solve this problem, the team, led by volcanologist Professor Geoff Wadge at Reading with fellow volcanologist Professor Harry Pinkerton at Lancaster and physicists Dr Jim Lesurf and Dr Duncan Robertson at St Andrews, have proposed building and using a novel surveying instrument called AVTIS (All-Weather Volcano Topography Imaging Sensor), consisting of a combined radar and thermal imager working at millimetre wavelengths.

Dr Lesurf, who runs the MM-Wave Research Group in the St Andrews School of Physics and Astronomy said, “Millimetre waves penetrate through cloud, rain, dust and fog better than visible or infrared waves which will enable AVTIS to measure the lava dome the majority of the time. The radar will generate high resolution contour maps of the dome whilst the thermal imager will image the temperature across the dome. These maps of the dome’s shape and temperature will be fed into computer models of the dome being devised by Professors Wadge and Pinkerton. Ultimately, this will lead to a better understanding of how domes grow and collapse and will offer improved hazard warning for those who live near such volcanoes.”

Meanwhile, Dr Duncan Robertson, technical consultant on the project based in the St Andrew Photonics Innovation Centre said, “The technology used in AVTIS has evolved from military systems. This is the first time such advanced technology has been selected specifically to investigate lava domes but the team at St Andrews have wide experience of developing high performance instruments both for scientific and defence applications. Whilst active volcanoes might seem remote to most people in Britain, there are millions of people worldwide who live near them and would benefit from improved hazard warning. One of my roles in the project is to assess the commercial potential of this instrument once the technique has been proven.”

The three-year AVTIS project will commence in October 2002 with the first results expected in mid 2003. AVTIS will be developed and tested in the UK and used in several field measurement campaigns at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS

Photographs of Montserrat Volcano showing the dome before and during a collapse – in jpeg form – available from Claire Grainger, contact details below.

For more information, please contact Dr Duncan Robertson direct on 01334 467307 or email dar@st- and.ac.uk or view the following websites:

MM-Wave Group:- http://www.st- and.ac.uk/~www_pa/Scots_Guide/MMWav e/Index.html

Photonics Innovation Centre:- http://www.st- and.ac.uk/institutes/pic/

Prof. Wadge’s group at Reading:- http://www.nerc-essc.ac.uk/

Prof. Pinkerton’s group at Lancaster:- http://www.es.lancs.ac.uk/vgrg/VGRG _main.html

Natural Environment Research Council:- http://www.nerc.ac.uk/

Montserrat Volcano Observatory:- http://www.mvo.ms/default.htm

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: volcanoes- nerc/standrews/chg/15july2002

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