Business Impact

Smoke Signals from "El Popo"

Geochemistry

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.

This story is part of our March/April 1999 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Business Impact

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.