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News Release 97-026

A Safer Way to Monitor Volcanoes? World's Scientists Finding an Answer

March 27, 1997

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Volcano expert Stanley Williams of Arizona State University in Tempe barely survived an eruption that killed several of his colleagues while taking gas samples on the side of a Colombian volcano named Galeras.

That was four years ago. Since then, Williams has been working on instruments that monitor changes in a volcano's gas output. These changes could forecast a major eruption--from a safer distance. One of the instruments, a device called COSPEC, is designed to be set up on a volcano's flank to measure how much sulfur dioxide gas is spewing out of its caldera. "COSPEC is driven or flown around the perimeter of a volcano," explains Williams, "or set up at some safe distant point."

The instrument measures the absorption of solar ultraviolet radiation by certain gases in a volcanic plume, thereby providing volcanologists with an early warning. As the amount of sulfur dioxide in the plume increases, an eruption becomes more likely. COSPEC recently provided a life-saving warning of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and helped scientists pinpoint when the Rabaul volcanic eruption was coming to an end.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Williams has convened a workshop--to take place at Arizona State from April 12 through 19--that will bring together virtually all scientists in the world who now use COSPEC to monitor volcanoes. Some 25 volcanologists from 14 countries will attend.

Participants in the upcoming workshop will work on calibrating the 19 instruments currently in use so that all COSPECs are comparable in their optics and electronics, as well as standardized in the method of their use. Scientists want data from the instruments to be consistent from one volcano observatory to another. The group's "test volcano" is a nearby coal-fired power plant, which emits sulfur dioxide.

Participants will spend the first three days of the workshop in the lab, then three more in the field. The scientists will bring complete COSPEC arrays with them, and will discuss such questions as to how best to monitor ash in a volcanic plume, how to determine wind velocity in the area of an erupting volcano and how to incorporate use of GPS instrumentation in their research.

Says Williams, who is also working on a remote-access instrument named GASPEC that measures carbon dioxide gas in a volcanic plume, "We might not be able to stop an eruption, but through use of instruments like COSPEC and GASPEC, we can help people survive it."


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Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

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Dan Weill, NSF, (703) 292-8558, email:

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