Using Satellite Data to Track Volcanic Emissions

Image courtesy of Simon Carn / Michigan Technological University.

A team led by researchers from Michigan State University has published a study on volcanic sulfur dioxide emissions, based on satellite data provided by NASA’s Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory.

The data has been gathered from the Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA’s Earth Observing System Aura satellite launched in 2004, which publishes its findings on NASA’s Global Sulfur Dioxide Monitoring (https://so2.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.html).

This is the first study of its kind – whereas the Global Sulfur Dioxide Monitoring website displays raw data from oil & gas, power plants, smelters and volcanoes, the Michigan team has chosen to focus particularly on volcanoes, compiling emissions data from 2005 to 2015 to produce annual estimates for each of 91 presently emitting volcanoes worldwide.

Such as study is relevant particularly in Asia and the Pacific, which is home to the majority of the 91 volcanoes compiled.

Based on the study, researchers can now better predict the levels of pollution caused by volcanic emissions.

“Many people may not realize that volcanoes are continuously releasing quite large amounts of gas, and may do so for decades or even centuries,” says volcanologist Simon Carn, an associate professor at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan, and the lead author of the new study. “Because the daily emissions are smaller than a big eruption, the effect of a single plume may not seem noticeable, but the cumulative effect of all volcanoes can be significant. In fact, on average, volcanoes release most of their gas when they’re not erupting.”

Satellite data on emission levels can also help with eruption forecasting, especially when used in conjunction with ground-based monitoring systems.

“It’s complementary to ground-based monitoring,” Carn says, adding that his team says both are needed. “Ground-based measurements of volcanic gases that are more difficult to measure from space, such as carbon dioxide, are crucial. But the satellite data could allow us to target new ground-based measurements at unmonitored volcanoes more effectively, leading to better estimates of volcanic carbon dioxide emissions.”

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