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Not afraid at all

April 10, 2011

One might wonder why someone who is familiar with volcanic hazards would go to an active volcano, on a small island with few exits.

Soufriere Hills Volcano

The view of Soufriere Hill Volcano from inside the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

The talks from the first day showed there are cycles in the behavior of the volcano. I’m not saying that the Soufriere Hills Volcano (SHV) pops off as regularly as Old Faithful, but there are various indications that activity is beginning or ending.

One of the major themes of this conference is monitoring. At the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), they have a magnificent view of the Soufriere Hills Volcano. That’s just the beginning. Observing the volcano doesn’t just involve eyeballs, although human observation is still integral. At MVO, several techniques have been developed that are in more widespread use now.

Seismic Activity Monitor

This is one of several of the monitors at Montserrat Volcano Observatory that Dr. Paddy Smith uses to keep track of seismic activity around the Soufriere Hills Volcano. It shows realtime seismic feed as well as the location of the seismometer.

There are seismometers in several different places in the island. There are tiltmeters installed on the flanks of the volcano. There is an infrared camera on the crater, set to give alarms if any of several regions shows an increase in temperature. Strainmeters have been placed in boreholes below the surface, so changes in the local strain field, related to inflation of the volcano feeder system, register immediately at the MVO. There is even an array of infrasound instruments, part sonic, part seismometer, that listen to the volcano constantly. Gas composition is monitored constantly, and the changes in SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and HCl (hydrochloric acid) indicate something is going on at deeper levels of the volcano.

One of the talks brought out the differences in “mental model” for volcanoes, public versus scientific. The public generally thinks of the volcano in terms of what goes on at the surface. For the scientists, a lot of the action goes on below the surface. Seismic monitoring is the big dog in watching the subsurface. Dr. Paddy Smith has his cell phone set to give him a warning when events of a certain size take place.

So I’m not scared. The staff at the volcano has this place wired better than an Intensive Care Unit.

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