2008 Laureate, Applied Technology
United Kingdom, Born 1973
The ancient Romans named the mouth of Hell Avernus —“birdless” — because of the deadly volcanic exhalations that killed every creature flying over it. Now, a small, man-made bird will approach the vents leading to the underworld, to sample their lethal breath. The knowledge it gathers could help save thousands of lives.
In 2009, Scottish physicist Andrew McGonigle will fly his remote-controlled, two-metre-long helicopter towards the fiery mouths of Italian volcanoes Etna and Stromboli to inquire of them when they are likely to erupt.
Living in Fear
Volcanoes loom large in the human imagination, not only for their vast bulk and fearsome destructive powers, but also for their unpredictability. Their flair for unheralded catastrophe has awed poets, painters, storytellers and scientists alike for generations. Today hundreds of millions of people in many countries dwell in their shadows. Volcanoes present not only a risk to human life, but also a major inconvenience to national and municipal governments — a false alert to evacuate a city can cause unnecessary alarm and much expense; failure to warn citizens in the case of an eruption has far more devastating consequences.
But if Andrew McGonigle’s brilliant fusion of high science and smart technology succeeds and is used in conjunction with other measurements specific to each volcano, the fear of sudden volcanic death, which has accompanied humanity since its dawn, will be greatly reduced. Those who live around the 550 volcanoes that have been active at some point over the centuries may receive weeks, even months of warning of an impending eruption.
A Deadly Toll
Researchers have sought ways to predict eruptions for more than a century, a task that sometimes required them to get dangerously close to the volcanoes. While techniques have improved, adequate forewarning remains elusive in many cases. When Mt. Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, it claimed over 70,000 lives. In 1902, Mt. Pelee in Martinique left 31,000 dead and, in 1985, Nevado del Ruiz took 25,000 lives, while Laki killed a quarter of Iceland’s population in 1783-1784. Yet, in 1991, thanks to measurements of gas emissions, a few days’ warning that Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines was primed to erupt enabled 300,000 people to flee, leaving just 875 casualties. But the gas-based conditions that enabled the forecasting of this eruption are rare: many of the world’s volcanoes remain enigmatic and, in the 20th century alone, killed 100,000 people.
One clue to the impending explosion is the release of gases from the magma as it rises towards the surface: sulphur dioxide (SO2), as well as super-heated steam, and carbon dioxide (CO2) are the main messengers, bubbling out of the molten rock as the pressure that imprisons them drops. “It’s like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne, allowing the bubbles to escape,” McGonigle explains.
SO2 is easily detected — but it dissolves in groundwater and is often not released in time to be a reliable indicator of an eruption. The best indicator of all is CO2, which escapes from the magma much earlier, when it is still 10 kilometres deep in the throat of the volcano. Once it reaches the surface, however, volcanic CO2 is indistinguishable from atmospheric CO2 and — until now — measuring methods were not sensitive enough to detect the presence of significant volcanic CO2. Volcanologists have tried setting their instruments inside the crater, but this method is very hazardous. McGonigle discovered that a better method was to position the instruments below and briefly through the plume of gas as it spewed from the volcano’s mouth and floated downwind, high above the ground.
McGonigle, who is 35 years old, grew up in Edinburgh, a fountainhead of the earth sciences for two centuries. On cross-country runs and camping expeditions, he skirted extinct volcanoes and explored the rugged, primordial geology of the Scottish Highlands. But his first love was physics: “I wanted first to understand how the universe worked, through the most fundamental of sciences — although my real passion is to use that understanding to come up with simple, elegant solutions to real problems.”
As a scientist, McGonigle has specialized for a decade in the study of air pollution and volcanic gases using lasers and other sensing devices. Among his adaptations for volcanology is a miniaturized spectrometer, far smaller and less expensive than normal instruments and now in standard use around the world. He has clambered over 15 of the world’s 60 active volcanoes, and analysed the gas signatures of many more. His research has proved seminal, yielding 42 scientific papers that have profoundly influenced volcanology in particular, as well as other areas of research. But it was the coupling of this science with the emerging technology of remote-controlled aircraft that was the stroke of genius, leading to his selection for a Rolex Award.
In 2005, a colleague at Sheffield University, Dr Andy Hodson, began testing a remote-controlled helicopter for studying glaciers, covering a far larger area, more safely and less arduously than on foot. This inspired McGonigle to develop a similar approach for sampling the gases from volcanoes. He rang a model shop, where the obliging manager ran a quick test and told him, yes, a remote-controlled helicopter could carry a payload up to 3 kilos — enough for the sophisticated sensors needed to take the measurements.
McGonigle teamed up with David Fisher, remote-controlled helicopter champion of Great Britain, and they installed the instruments on a small chopper. To their dismay, the onboard computer that analysed the data failed repeatedly. Eventually they tracked the fault to the massive vibration caused by the helicopter engine — a problem solved with true inventiveness using foam rubber, elastic bands and a US$10 plastic stool. “For me, the biggest breakthrough was getting it all to work on the test flight. I was almost in tears,” McGonigle recalls.
The Prototype Test
In March 2007, with the help of David Fisher and Professor Alessandro Aiuppa, of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, the prototype helicopter, AEROVOLC I, took to the skies near the fuming vent of Vulcano, a modest cone near Sicily that has lent its name to the entire volcano tribe. It worked perfectly — over the ensuing days the instruments recorded SO2, CO2 and wind speed, enabling the scientists to calculate the flow of gases from the volcano. “It was just amazing. There was ecstasy in the camp. We had clear proof that the concept worked — and that it may be possible to predict from weeks to months ahead whether an eruption is developing, from the flow of CO2,” says McGonigle. Professor Aiuppa adds: “These measurements could provide us with the earliest and most direct possible indicator of a forthcoming eruption. McGonigle’s idea is innovative and should represent a major breakthrough in modern volcanology.”
The method requires the team to measure the flow of SO2 from beneath, then fly the helicopter into the plume to measure total SO2 and CO2 and establish the wind speed, all with the aim of accurately calculating the flow rate of volcanic CO2. This provides clues to the state and position of the magma, deep in the volcano — advance notice that “something is going on”. However, McGonigle cautions, each volcano is different — special knowledge of its unique “personality” must be added to the information about its gas emissions.
More Flights Ahead
With the Rolex Award funds, McGonigle is purchasing a piece of high technology, a 14-kilo helicopter built by an American firm, which will be known as AEROVOLC II once he has equipped it with his specially tailored gas sensors and analytical software. In 2009, he will carry out further field trials on two of Italy’s most famous but very different volcanoes, Mt. Stromboli and Mt. Etna: the former erupts every 10 minutes and the latter about once a year. Using GPS navigation and on-board robotics, the helicopter can take off, fly and land itself according to a pre-determined flight plan, enabling anyone with basic technical skills to operate it. Or, thanks to an onboard video camera, it can be guided manually at any stage of a flight extending up to around 20 kilometres. This makes the technology usable with minimal training by the staff at any volcano observatory in the world. Measurements can be taken safely, cheaply and frequently, even daily, replacing, for example, current piloted helicopter flights over volcanoes that are expensive and at times perilous.
“People are now interested in the prospect of using these kinds of aircraft for all sorts of monitoring and mapping, for anything that is remotely dangerous,” McGonigle adds. The equipment costs about $80,000, a fraction the price of other, less versatile approaches. Thus, for relatively modest costs, millions of people could receive the gift of time in which to save themselves from an impending eruption.
Combined with other forms of volcanic sensing, such as seismology and ground-deformation detection, Andrew McGonigle’s innovative approach to gas sampling will provide far greater power and precision in predicting the unpredictable, the timing of a volcanic outbreak – and so protect countless people from an age-old, terrifying menace to humanity.
Published in 2008