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Forecasting, detecting, and tracking volcanic eruptions from space

May 16, 2020

Satellite monitoring of volcanic activity typically includes four primary observations: (1) deformation and surface change, (2) gas emissions, (3) thermal anomalies, and (4) ash plumes. These phenomena are imaged by remote sensing data that span the electromagnetic spectrum, from microwave to ultraviolet energy and including visible and infrared wavelengths. The primary uses of satellite data in volcanology are forecasting, detecting, and tracking eruptive activity. Eruptions are often preceded by a number of indicators that are detectable from space, including surface deformation, subtle increases in surface temperature, and elevated gas emissions. The first indications of eruption, especially at remote volcanoes, are often identified in satellite data by strong thermal anomalies and/or the presence of ash and gas in the atmosphere, the recognition of which can be automated for rapid eruption detection. Once an eruption is in progress, space-based imagery of all types can track activity over time, providing information on the emplacement of volcanic deposits, the presence and character of ash plumes, and potential changes in the character of the eruption, all of which aid hazards assessment. Activity at Agung volcano, Indonesia, during 2017–2019, offers an excellent example of the importance of remote sensing datasets for forecasting, detecting, and tracking eruptions. Challenges to exploiting current and future satellite data include ensuring regular acquisitions over active volcanoes and developing tools for automated analysis of the massive volume of imagery for volcano-related signals.