Volcanic eruptions can be more easily predicted using an algorithm

In the fall of 2017, geology professor Patricia Gregg and her team had just set up a new modeling program to predict volcanic eruptions on Blue Waters and iForge supercomputers.

At the same time, another team monitored the activity of the Sierra Negra volcano in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. One scientist from the Ecuador Project, Dennis Geist, of Colgate University, called Greg, and what followed was a prediction of the June 2018 Sierra Negra eruption 5 months before it happened, Yorick Alert writes.

The new modeling approach was originally developed on the iMac computer, and it actually attracted attention by recreating the unexpected eruption of the Okmok volcano in Alaska in 2008.

A step forward for volcanic eruption predictions

Gregg’s team, based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, wanted to test an update to their prediction model for volcanic eruptions, and GIST’s observations of the Sierra Negra mountains showed signs of an impending eruption.

“Sierra Negra is a well-maintained volcano. This means that prior to past eruptions, the volcano showed all the initial signs of an eruption we would expect to see, such as gas release and increased seismic activity. This feature made the Sierra Negra a great test subject for our improved model,” Gregg said, Lead author of the paper.

However, the researchers said, many volcanoes do not follow these well-established patterns. Predicting volcanic eruptions is one of the great challenges of volcanology, and developing quantitative models to aid these more complex scenarios is a focus of Greg and his team’s work.

It all started as a test

During the 2017-2018 winter break, Greg and her colleagues ran Sierra Negra data through the new model. They completed the analysis in January 2018, and although it was only a test, they ended up providing a framework for understanding Sierra Negra eruption cycles and assessing the likelihood and timing of future eruptions; But no one realizes that yet.

“Our model predicted that the strength of the rock containing the shale of the Sierra Negra would become very unstable sometime between June 25 and July 5, and that could lead to a volcanic eruption,” Gregg said.

“I presented this conclusion at a science conference in March 2018. We then took up other work and didn’t look at our models again until Dennis sent me a message on June 26 asking me to confirm the date I had predicted. The Sierra Negra erupted a day after the first weather forecast. We were stunned.”

Using supercomputers to predict volcanic eruptions

Although it’s an ideal scenario, the study shows the power of incorporating high-performance supercomputers into practical research, the researchers said. “The advantage of this updated model is its ability to continuously ingest and quickly process multidisciplinary data in real time to provide a daily forecast, similar to a weather forecast,” said Yan Zhan, co-author of the study.

“This requires an incredible amount of computing power, which was previously not available to the volcanic forecasting community,” he added.

Developing a modeling program of this strength required a highly interdisciplinary approach that Gregg’s team could not access until working with the NCSA.

Volcanoes and artificial intelligence

“We all speak the same language when it comes to the multi-characteristic numerical analysis and the high-performance computing needed to predict mechanical failures, in this case of a volcanic magma chamber,” said Sid Couric, co-author of the study.

With Couric’s expertise, the team said they hope to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning into the prediction model to help make this computing power available to researchers working on standard laptops and desktops.

The results of the study were published in the journal science progress.

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