Global Carbon Cycle Is Demonstrated By Flying Drones Over Volcanoes

Volcanoes have been active from the early life span of earth. It is estimated that there are around 1500 active volcanoes present worldwide excluding the ones that are present below the ocean floor. Warning people before the volcanic breakout is a vital task but measuring volcanic gas emission is not easy.

A UCL-led International team is collecting data from specially designed drones in Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea to understand the contribution of volcanoes to the global carbon cycle. There are around 9,000 people living there and it is determined to be one of the most active volcanoes. The research has been published in Science Advances which has demonstrated for the first time about the combined calculations from the air, earth, and space to gather more knowledge about the most inaccessible, highly active volcanoes.

Manam Volcano / Image Source – nasa

The research involves researchers from UK, USA, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, spanning volcanology and aerospace engineering.

Various ways are implemented to determine when a volcano is going to erupt. When the sky is clear satellites can even detect the emission of gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2) from volcanic eruptions. It has been known before that it emits sulfur dioxide but the emission of CO2 was not established before and it is very difficult to measure the CO2 emissions due to high absorption in the background atmosphere. The research team flew the drone 2km high and 6km away to go to Manam’s summit where gas samples were collected and was evaluated within hours.

The leader of the research Dr. Emma Liu (UCL Earth Sciences) said,  “Manam hasn’t been studied in detail but we could see from satellite data that it was producing strong emissions. The resources of the in-country volcano monitoring institute are small and the team has an incredible workload, but they helped us make the links with the community living on Manam island.”

The researchers gathered funds to purchase computers solar panels and other technological instruments to engage the localities in the fieldwork. A disaster management group was thus set to have communications from the island via satellite and arrange drone operating training for Rabaul Volcanological Observatory staff to support in their monitoring.

The factors governing the carbon emission from the volcanic eruption will help us to understand how our climate has changed in the past and what will be its impact in the future.

Professor Alessandro Aiuppa expressed it as ‘a real advance in our field’. He also said “Ten years ago you could have only stared and guessed what Manam’s CO2 emissions were. If you take into account all the carbon released by global volcanism, it’s less than a percent of the total emission budget, which is dominated by human activity. In a few centuries, humans are acting like thousands of volcanoes. If we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, it will make monitoring and forecasting eruptions using aerial gas observations even harder.”

Tobias Fischer said “To understand the drivers of climate change you need to understand the carbon cycle in the earth. We wanted to quantify the carbon emission from this very large carbon dioxide emitter. We had very little data in terms of carbon isotope composition, which would identify the source of the carbon and whether it is the mantle, crust, or sediment. We wanted to know where that carbon comes from.”

After combining the data with drones and satellite imaging, the research team concluded that Manam falls is among the 10 biggest contributors to the volcanic eruption with the emission of 3,700 tons of CO2 and 5,100 tons of SO2 per day. Volcanic emissions are a vital part of the earth’s carbon cycle. It is the movement of the carbon between the atmosphere, land, ocean, and various organisms and it should be observed to keep ourselves safe in the future ahead.

Source – ucl, Science Advances

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