Aerial strategies using remote-controlled drones reduce the risks of ground-based measurements of volcanic emissions, maintaining real-time data transmission in these potentially dangerous environments.

An international team of researchers has developed drones specially designed to gather data in active volcano environments - testing it in an actual volcano in Manam, Papua New Guinea. The unmanned aerial drones will monitor these volatile land features, forewarning possible eruption events. This will help local communities respond appropriately.

Additionally, the data-gathering drones could offer additional insights on how volcanoes - some of the most hazardous and inaccessible features of the Earth - behave and contribute to the global carbon cycle. Details of the study are published in the journal Science Advances.

The Risks and Wonders of Volcanoes

Volcanic eruptions are among the most destructive natural disasters known to man. For example, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia destroyed over 70 percent of the island it was situated on, plus surrounding islands, collapsing everything into a caldera. It even spewed debris far into the atmosphere, giving birth to observational reports around the world that the Moon appeared blue.

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To monitor volcanic activities, scientists mostly rely on earthquakes in the surrounding area. Tremors in the ground usually precede eruptions. They also monitor the presence of bulges or raised sections around the volcano, which are most likely caused by magma build up underground.

Whenever clear skies are available, satellites can also provide images of the volcano, as well as measure the emission of volcanic materials like sulphur dioxide (SO2). A sudden rise in the concentrations of these materials can signal impending volcanic activity.

While volcanoes are only responsible for a small part of the world's carbon footprint, especially when compared to human-related activities, researchers still express interest in studying carbon emissions from volcanoes, partly to include this data in future analysis of the environment in the context of climate change.


Studying Manam via Drones

Volcanologist Emma Liu from University College London, who led the research team, explains that Manam has not been "studied in detail but we could see from satellite data that it was producing strong emissions," she said in a statement.

Geochemist Tobias Fischer, from University of New Mexico, adds that the multidisciplinary research team wanted to quantify the carbon emission from the Papua New Guinea volcano. The team then travelled on site, testing two different long-range drones. Each was fitted with a variety of necessary equipment, including gas sensors and vision systems. Researchers made two expeditions to Manam Island, one in October 2018 and the other in May 2019.

The drones travelled over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) above the Manam volcano, going as far as 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away from the point where they were deployed. Considering the volcano's steep slopes and volcanic plumes, conventional ground-based data collection methods are too dangerous for humans - making the unmanned drones ideal for making close-up and real-time measurements. With each flight, the drones took photos of Manam, including its two craters.

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Aside from simply measuring the levels of different materials present in the billowing plumes, researchers also analyzed the ratio between different compounds - such as sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The ratio of these two materials could cue in the researchers whether magma is starting to swell up to the surface.

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