Team assess volcanoes to help forecast eruptions

Sarychev Peak Eruption
Copyright: Flickr/ NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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  • Researchers study little-known volcanoes in the East African Rift Valley
  • They hope to determine past, current and future volcanic behaviours
  • An expert suggests a need for risk management plan in case of future eruption

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[NAIROBI] A team of scientists have begun assessing little-known volcanoes in the East African Rift valley to understand the threat they pose to the people living in the area.
The research, which started in Ethiopia this week (1 September), entails identifying signs of current volcanic activity and assessing records of past eruptions to identify the current state of the volcanoes and possibilities of forecast in the region, says Kathryn Whaler, a professor of geosciences at UK-based University of Edinburgh, one of the institutions involved in the project.
The multidisciplinary team made up of scientists from Ethiopia-based Addis Ababa University and the Geological Survey of Ethiopia and colleagues from the United Kingdom, including the Universities of Edinburgh and Bristol will collect rock samples which will be dated and analysed.

“The rift valley is the main trucking route for goods entering and leaving the country, so practically all imports and exports would be affected.”

Kathryn Whaler, University of Edinburgh

According to Whaler, they will depend mostly on geophysical methods to predict the current distribution of magma — the hot liquid material that result from volcanoes.   
They will then combine the outcome with other techniques such as statistics to characterise future hazards, which will then provide forecasts on when and where the next eruptions might occur.
According to a release from the University of Edinburgh, in 2011, Nabro volcano — without any warning from earlier studies that assumed it was dormant — erupted on the boarder of Ethiopia and Eritrea, killing 32 people and displacing more than 5,000 inhabitants.
Whaler says although there are more than 100 volcanoes in the region, no records can be found on when they last exploded. Most of the volcanoes, according to Whaler, lack detectors that would indicate signs of an impending volcanic activity, noting that an eruption could greatly affect the economic activities in the region.
 “The rift valley is the main trucking route for goods entering and leaving the country, so practically all imports and exports would be affected,” Whealer explains. “The flower industry is concentrated in the [area] and countries such as Netherlands that depend on these products will be affected too.”
The five-year project, which is known as RiftVolc, is being funded by the UK-based Natural Environment Research Council at a cost of £3.7 million (almost US$6.1 million), according to the release, adding that the findings will be shared with policymakers and the people living in the area.
Edward Wamuyu, a Kenya-based geological consultant, tells SciDev.Net that the project is a worthy cause, considering the few reports on volcanic activities in the Rift valley.
“The research [will enable a] better understanding of the characteristic trends of the [volcanic] eruptions,” he says.
Wamuyu adds that the researchers should establish risk management procedures that can be implemented in case there is a volcanic eruption in the future.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.