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Sniffing out volcanic eruptions

Could devastating volcanic eruptions be predicted? High gas output rates from Mount Mayon are helping researchers
Could devastating volcanic eruptions be predicted? High gas output rates from Mount Mayon are helping researchers  

By Nick Easen
CNN Hong Kong

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Good news for those who live beneath the shadow of the world's active volcanoes. It may soon be possible to sniff them out before they erupt.

Two scientists in Taiwan say they have developed a technique that could potentially be used to predict when a volcano is about to blow.

Chih-Chieh Su and Chih-An Huh have shown that the air downwind of a volcano prior to a major eruption is laden with a radioactive gas.

They believe that if a global network is properly designed, it may be possible to warn people before the worst happens.

The Taiwanese scientists studied the Philippines' most active volcano, Mount Mayon, which has erupted 50 times since 1616.

Interactive: Anatomy of a volcano  

They found that fallout levels of a radioactive heavy element called polonium-210 in the air could be detected over 1,300 kilometers away in Nankang, a suburb of Taipei.

Polonium-210 is formed by radioactive decay and minute amounts of the element are present in volcanic magma.

Between June 1990 and late February 2000 the pair detected the radioactive gas, which they believe was caught on northerly winds that drove the fallout from the Philippines to northern Taiwan.

This is not the first time high levels of polonium-210 have been observed prior to volcanic eruptions.

Polonium-210 has also been detected in fallout samples preceding the eruption of Mount St Helens in the U.S. in 1980 and El Chichon in Mexico in 1982.

Su and Huh say that a large percentage of polonium found in the atmosphere is from volcanic emissions, and that the radioactive gas bubbles out of fresh magma as it wells up in a volcano -- an activity that occurs prior to an eruption.

Anticipating the big one

Polonium-210 may one day be sampled in rainwater, washed out from atmospheric dust by rain giving a clear indication of nearby volcanoes that are about to blow.

Over the last six years the scientists have built up data on the fluxes of radioactive gases in the southern East China Sea area hoping to be able to use it for future volcanic predictions.

Su and Huh believe that the results from Mount Mayon represent a turning point and that a method to accurately predict volcanic eruptions may not be far away.

They also hope their work, which looks at the movement of particles high in the atmosphere, will be helpful in our understanding of the transport and removal of air pollutants in the Asia region.




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