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Researchers to explore White Island’s toxic cloud

3 May 2018

Researchers to explore White Island’s toxic cloud

White Island’s hot and toxic volcanic cloud holds vital data that until now has been out of reach.
The Earthquake Commission is funding researchers from Victoria University of Wellington who will use new technology to bring back this information from the heart of the volcano.

Research leader Dr Ian Schipper says gases in the island’s volcanic cloud, or “plume”, can give an early warning of what is happening inside the volcano. Until now, it has not been possible to measure gases closer than several hundred metres from the plume.

“The gases can tell us a lot about what is happening at depth in the volcano, so we really want to know exactly what gases are there,” says Dr Schipper. “We are using specially hardened and built drones to measure right in the densest part of the plume to get the true volcanic signals.

“Gases sometimes change before an eruption because different types of gases are released from different depths. By sampling the gases in the plume, we can find out if fresh hot magma is entering the volcano from depth. When volcanoes erupt, it is magma – a mixture of molten and semi molten rock – that are thrown out as lava or explosive fragments of rock.

“We know that carbon dioxide is released from very deep in the system and sulphur dioxide is released at a shallower level. So if we see the carbon/sulphur ratios go up, it indicates there is fresh magma entering the system from great depth,” says Dr Schipper.

That can be an indication that the volcano could be building up to an eruption. Drones still don’t allow continuous monitoring, but allow high-quality measurements that would otherwise be impossible to get at all.

“Until now samples have been taken downwind so you don’t know how much the gases have been diluted or changed as they travelled through air. The toxic gases and difficulty of access make it too dangerous, or impossible, for a human to take a sample right in the plume.”

EQC’s Science and Education Manager, Dr Richard Smith, says the project will bring a big advance in volcano scientific work.

“Dr Schipper and his team are developing technology that will let us sample all the components of a volcano plume. This will let volcanologists get a much better idea of how plume chemistry works, and what the plume is doing to the local atmosphere. Using the drones will also make it much easier to keep a regular eye on volcanic activity so that we have more opportunity to reduce the impact of an eruption.”
Dr Schipper says drones are just starting to be used around the world to get more accurate data from volcanoes that could help forecast eruptions – critical information for New Zealand’s emergency management and industries such as tourism.

“I was part of a project in Chile to develop a drone that can handle the heat and acidity in a volcano’s plume. We have brought the drone back from Chile and are collaborating with TurboAce in the USA to build around four or five drones. They will be very light 2 kg quadcopters that can be easily carried to a site then launched. We will also build special housing for the electronics to protect against the water and acid gases in the plume.”

Though there are many different gases and elements in a volcano’s plume (even gold), Dr Schipper’s team will be focusing on analysing isotopes of carbon and sulphur, and on the toxic trace metals that are transported in the plume and that are very difficult to measure.

Dr Schipper says that White Island is the ideal place to perfect the sampling technology and drone operation for New Zealand conditions. “Once we know it works there, we can use it anywhere.”

EQC funds $16 million of research annually to reduce the impact of natural disaster on people and property. This project is one of EQC’s Biennial Research Grants.

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