Study eyes low-budget approach to volcano monitoring

University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists are presenting their work at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco this week. Here are some highlights of their research, as shared at the world’s largest Earth and space science meeting.

When it comes to volcanoes, Martin Harrild is both a scientist and a realist.

Harrild, a University of Alaska Fairbanks master’s degree student in geophysics, understands the importance of early-detection systems for remote volcanoes. He also knows that not everyone has a large budget to install state-of-the-art cameras and seismic equipment.

With that in mind, Harrild is studying the effectiveness of using off-the-shelf cameras as an early-warning system for volcanic eruptions. He presented a poster on the subject at AGU on Friday.

Analysis of images from more than 20 low-budget webcams, which are pointed at various volcanoes around the world, indicate that they can be effective for detecting small or moderate volcanic events before the human eye. Several cameras were also purchased for testing in a laboratory environment at UAF.

Some of the cameras are from basic home-security systems, costing as little as $25 each, a bargain compared to high-tech systems that can reach $30,000 or more. That could make them an important addition to areas in the Aleutians or Latin America that are sparsely monitored.

“It’s basically a feeling of working with what you have,” Harrild said. “If you somehow get a half million dollars in funding, buy an expensive camera, but not everyone can do that.”

While webcams may not be as effective as more sophisticated equipment, they could still provide an extra 15 minutes to warn nearby residents or transportation officials, Harrild said. Some remote eruptions aren’t currently detected until they’re discovered by pilots.

“That’s the aim, to be able to deploy these methods in more places,” he said. “This is much better than nothing.”