Skip to Content

Smoke Signals from "El Popo"

Geochemistry
March 1, 1999

Volcanologists have come a long way since Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii. Now they have at least a fighting chance of predicting a volcanic eruption. Yet researchers who specialize in volcanoes still don’t fully understand the gaseous warning signs that spew out of active peaks. The composition of the smoke holds invaluable clues, but sampling the gases is dangerous and is often impossible as the eruption begins.

To provide a safer, continuous way of analyzing volcanic gases, physicists and geochemists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have used a remote sensing device to monitor plumes billowing from Popocatepetl, an active volcano 70 kilometers outside of Mexico City. The concentration of one of the gases depends on the temperature within the volcano, making the device “essentially a remote thermometer,” says Steven Love, a physicist at Los Alamos.

The remote thermometer is a version of a lab instrument commonly used to identify gases based on their characteristic absorption and emission of infrared radiation. By silhouetting the hot volcanic plume against the “cold” background of the sky, Love and his co-workers can measure the concentration of telltale gases formed by the volcano’s complex chemistry.

The next goal is to develop an automated, continuous warning system. Love explains that if the scientists can figure out the characteristic sequence of gases emitted prior to a major eruption, it “could give us real predictive powers.” Popocatepetl, like other active volcanoes, is closely monitored for seismic activity. Notes Love, “Working together with seismic monitoring, [the new technique] could certainly increase the probability of meaningful predictions.”

For those living under the shadows of active volcanoes, that could mean feeling just a bit less threatened by the nearby smoking giant.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI
Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI

The walls are closing in on Clearview AI

The controversial face recognition company was just fined $10 million for scraping UK faces from the web. That might not be the end of it.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.