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Crystal movement under Mount St. Helens may have predicted 1980 eruption

"What we are doing is not a real-time monitoring, but a retrospective study of what happened prior to the last eruption," explained researcher Jon Blundy.
By Brooks Hays   |   June 30, 2016 at 10:26 AM
| License Photo

BRISTOL, England, June 30 (UPI) -- The movement of crystals in the magma of certain volcanoes may indicate the likelihood of an impending eruption.

New research by scientists at the University of Bristol suggests the movement of magmatic crystals might have predicted the eruption of Washington State's Mount St. Helens in 1989. Monitoring magmatic crystal movements, researchers say, may help volcanists predict future St. Helens eruptions, as well as eruptions at similar volcanoes.

Researchers presented their discovery at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, held this week in Yokohama, Japan.

"We looked for signs in the way zoned feldspar crystals grew and moved beneath Mount St. Helens in the build-up to the 1980 eruption," Jon Blundy, lead researcher and a professor at Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, said in a news release.

Crystals form delicate concentric layers in erupted volcanic rocks. Like the rings of a tree, they can offer information about the volcano's past. Their chemical composition can reveal the pressure and temperature at which the crystals formed in the magma chamber prior to eruption.

By analyzing the volcanic crystals, Bristol researchers developed a method for predicting how and when molten rock moved through the volcano's chambers before the eruption.

"Rapid upwards movement of magma at depths of several kilometers is a pretty good indication that something significant is happening," Blundy explained. "We have found a way of correlating the crystal composition to where they came from."

Researchers found that three years before the 1989 eruption -- which deposited ash in 11 states and killed 57 people -- magmatic crystals advanced from 12 kilometers below the volcano to just four kilometers below. Such a destabilization could be a strong sign that an eruption in the months or years to follow is likely.

"What we are doing is not a real-time monitoring, but a retrospective study of what happened prior to the last eruption," Blundy added. "Now we have found this movement, it's reasonable to assume that similar movement will precede any further eruptions from this and perhaps many other volcanoes."

Blundy and his research partners are now looking to see how their research may be applied to other, similar volcanoes. They're also hoping to find ways to use their research for improved monitoring techniques.

"Destabilization of deeply-stored magma and its ascent to shallow levels in the crust, may be one key factor, which may be especially useful in circumstances where we can monitor a volcano closely over a period of years," Blundy concluded.

© 2016 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

El Niño may cause more intense fire season in Amazon this year

Researchers at NASA and the University of California Irvine made the prediction using two models that may be applicable beyond the Amazon.
By Stephen Feller   |   June 29, 2016 at 4:32 PM

WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) -- The wildfire risk in the Amazon rainforest is higher than in the most recent two drought seasons, raising concern that large parts of the rainforest could burn during the upcoming fire season.

Researchers at NASA and the University of California Irvine made the announcement following analysis of previous seasons and the amount of rainfall in the Amazon during the El Niño last year, finding they expect far greater swaths of the rainforest to be dry enough to ignite.

The effects of agricultural fires -- ignited to burn off dry material that can ignite into difficult-to-control wildfires -- that escape their boundaries can cause greater damage, as can slow-moving forest fires. Because rainforest trees are not adapted to fire, wildfires can be worse near and in the Amazon.

"When trees have less moisture to draw upon at the beginning of the dry season, they become more vulnerable to fire, and evaporate less water into the atmosphere," Jim Randerson, a scientist at the University of California Irvine, said in a press release. "This puts millions of trees under stress and lowers humidity across the region, allowing fires to grow bigger than they normally would."

The researchers developed a web tool, the Global Fires Emissions Database, which is updated daily using fire detection signals from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradometer instrument on NASA's Terra satellite and fire emissions data from previous years.

In the case of the Amazon, the researchers employed the Amazon fire forecast model developed in 2011 to predict that warmer sea surface temperatures because of El Niño shifting rainfall away from the rainforest, making it more dry and increasing the risk of fire.

The researchers said the rainforest has far more dry conditions than in 2005 and 2010, which were the last two fire seasons following a drought in the area.

In addition to the rainforest, researchers identified nine regions outside the Amazon where fire risk may be predictable three to six months before peak fire activity, allowing forecasts to be designed for Central America and some countries in Southeast Asia.

An analysis of data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission shows greater soil water deficits in 2016 than previous drought years with high Amazon fire activity. Photo by Yang Chen/University of California Irvine

The potential importance of this is not lost on experts in Brazil.

"Fire forecasts three to six months before peak fire activity are important to identify areas with higher fire probability for integrated planning in support of local actions," said Liana Anderson, a scientist at the National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters.

© 2016 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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