Scots role in hazardous volcano warning

Friday 24 March 2006

Scottish scientists have been awarded an urgent grant to investigate an increasingly dangerous volcano in the West Indies. The researchers at the University of St Andrews will head out to Montserrat next week to measure how much of a threat the volcano is to the people living there.

The team will investigate the Soufrière Hills Volcano, already known to be unstable because a lava dome is growing at the summit as new magma is forced up from within the earth. Eventually such lava domes become unstable and collapse, resulting in a flow of deadly hot rocks and ash pouring down the mountainside, destroying everything in their path. Recent observations have noted an accelerated growth of the dome, resulting in it being seen from outside the volcano’s crater rim.

Since 2002 the St Andrews physicists have collaborated with volcanologists at the Universities of Reading and Lancaster in a £1/3 million project to develop a new instrument for measuring volcanoes which has resulted in an improved hazard warning to communities living nearby. The novel surveying instrument developed (AVTIS – All- weather Volcano Topography Imaging Sensor) consists of a combined radar and thermal imager working at millimetre wavelengths. Since millimetre waves penetrate through cloud, rain, dust and fog better than visible or infrared waves, it is the ideal technology to exploit in an area where investigations are hindered due to the poor weather commonly encountered in mountainous areas and during periods of eruptive behaviour.

The new lava dome at Montserrat however has been growing since August 2005 and recent observations noting its visibility above the crater rim have resulted in an ‘urgency grant’ from NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) to send the team back.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr David Macfarlane, who largely designed and built AVTIS, will head out to Montserrat on Monday to supervise the project. He said:

“This trip is urgent since it is the first time that we have been able to see the new dome from safe positions outside the crater. Whilst this growth could go on for months to years, it could suddenly stop or the dome could suffer a major collapse.”

The emergency trip will see David and colleagues measure the shape and growth rate of the lava dome, the amount and temperature of the lava, to gain a better insight into its current condition. For two weeks observations will be made for periods of up to sixteen hours at a time, working both on the ground and by helicopter to survey the site. The researchers will feed back their observations to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which supplies information to the Montserrat government in relation to hazard and risk evaluation.

Dr Macfarlane continued: “Such a detailed series of measurements have not been achieved before and we expect some exciting findings. This unique instrument allows us to continuously measure the growing volcano regardless of the weather. We can observe the changing shape and temperature of the lava dome more frequently than by any other method and gain crucial insights into the mechanisms driving the volcano. In addition to working outside the crater, we also plan to make at least one measurement from the crater rim itself to calculate the net growth rate since November 2005. This opportunity may not present itself again for several years and we hope it will be of benefit to the people of Montserrat since our projected long-term growth rates will help the government with their risk assessment.”

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DR MACFARLANE IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW TODAY (FRIDAY 24TH MARCH 2006) ON: TEL: 44 (0) 1334 46 3156 , MOBILE: 0776 232 1365 OR EMAIL dgm5@st-



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Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st-

Ref: Hazardous Volcano 240306.doc

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