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Short-term Forecasts of Volcanic Eruptions. Not yet, but great progress is being made. Is it possible to forecast exactly when a volcano will erupt?. This presentation shows how new models of seismic precursors are providing key limits to forecasting eruptions. Villarrica, Chile, 2004.

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Not yet, but great progress is being made.

Is it possible to forecast exactly when a volcano will erupt?

This presentation shows how new models of seismic precursors are providing key limits to forecasting eruptions.

Villarrica, Chile, 2004


Volcanoes rarely erupt without warning.

Before escaping from a volcano, the molten rock that feeds eruptions must break and distort the Earth’s crust as it finds a pathway to the surface.

Most eruptions are thus preceded by small earthquakes and deformation of the ground.


During volcanic crises, earthquakes are the most commonly monitored precursors, because:

Emergency seismometers are easy to install.

Seismometers can record volcanic earthquakes even if they are not on the volcano itself.

Emergency seismometer, Montserrat 1996 (Photo: Bill McGuire)


Rate of Seismicity

Months - Years


Eruptions are preceded by increasing rates of seismicity.

Initial increases may be detected months or years beforehand.

The final acceleration tends to occur only days before eruption.

Can the final acceleration be used to improve short-term forecasts during a volcanic crisis?

This study focuses on emergencies at volcanoes reawakening after several decades or centuries.

Such volcanoes are especially dangerous because:

They tend to reawaken with large, explosive eruptions.

Few are being monitored permanently; many are not being monitored at all.

Local populations are unaware of the threat from the volcano and so no suitable emergency plans have been devised.





Interval between Eruptions

New eruptions normally occur at intervals from years to centuries.

Longer intervals between eruptions increase the chances that

the next eruption will be explosive.



Interval between Eruptions


Volcanoes that erupt frequently commonly produce lava flows.

Examples include:

Etna in Sicily (main photo)

Piton de La Fournaise on Réunion Island

Kilauea and Mauna Loa in Hawaii (inset)


Lava flows on Mt Etna in Sicily

Most lava flows advance at walking pace.

As a result, they rarely threaten lives, although their destruction of land and property is total.


Kilauea, Hawaii

Southeast Crater, Mt Etna

Explosive eruptions can also occur.

Most are small enough to affect only the area next to the vent.


Northeast Crater, Mt Etna, 1986

Occasionally, the explosive events are strong enough to disturb districts beyond the volcano.



Interval between Eruptions



Tenerife, Canary Islands (Photo: Carmen Solana)

Effusive eruptions can also occur after centuries of tranquillity.

If the magma is fluid, such eruptions may feed lava flows, as observed on Tenerife, La Palma and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

Such eruptions are similar to those seen on Etna, Hawaii and Réunion.


When magma is more viscous, the eruptions produce lava domes.

Since 1995, the growth of a lava dome has been monitored at Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat, in the Caribbean.


Lava domes may spread hundreds of metres from the vent.

They become much more dangerous if they collapse.

When a dome collapses, it disintegrates into a hot landslide of broken lava and volcanic gas, creating a pyroclastic flow.

This lethal mixture can travel several kilometres within minutes.


Gas pressure within a dome may also trigger explosive eruptions.

Explosive eruption, October 1997, Montserrat (Photo: Paul Cole)



Interval between Eruptions


Major explosive (plinian) eruptions expel up to cubic kilometres of magma within 24 hours.

They send pulverised magma (ash) 10-35 km or more into the atmosphere.

They also feed lethal currents of ash and gas (pyroclastic flows) that race over the ground at hurricane speeds.

Such eruptions may devastate hundreds of square kilometres.

Photo: Don Swanson, USGS


Photo: Rick Hoblitt, USGS

Photo: NASA

Examples include:

Mount St Helens, USA (main photo)

Pinatubo in the Philippines (inset, right)

Kliuchevskoi in Kamchatka (inset, left)

Photo: Don Swanson, USGS


Note the houses

Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat, has been erupting since 1995.

It is the volcano’s first eruption for nearly 350 years.


Most of the world’s major explosive eruptions have occurred at volcanoes reawakening after a century or more of tranquillity.

These include:

Pinatubo, Philippines in 1991;

El Chichón, Mexico, in 1982;

Mount St Helens, USA, in 1980;

Krakatau, Indonesia, in 1883;

Vesuvius, Italy, in 79;

Santorini, Greece, in 1650 BC.


Vesuvius, in Southern Italy, has been quiet since 1944.

It now supports a population of nearly 600,000 people.

How long ahead of time can we reliably forecast eruptions from volcanoes that have been quiet for decades or centuries?



Location of Earthquake

Volcanoes can heal themselves during long periods of tranquillity.

Before another eruption, therefore, magma must break open a new path to the surface.

As the path is broken open, earthquakes are triggered below the volcano.

Increasing seismicity thus normally occurs before eruptions.


The acceleration in seismicity can be explained by the slow growth of fractures within and below a volcano.

At first, the number of growing fractures increases with time.

Under these conditions, the detected rate of seismicity increases exponentially with time.

Most of the fractures remain isolated and so are unlikely to produce a new path for the magma.

An exponential increase thus indicates the possible approach to eruption, but does not identify when that eruption might occur.


Event Rate

Inverse Event Rate


When the number of active fractures exceeds a critical value, these join together to form a new path for the magma.

The opening of the main pathway itself is recorded by the peaks in seismic event rate.

Under these conditions, the peak rate increases hyperbolically with time.

Conveniently, this means that the minimuminverse rate decreases linearly with time. An eruption is expected when the inverse rate becomes zero.

soufriere hills montserrat 1995



Inverse Event Rate




Time (Days)

Soufriere Hills, Montserrat, 1995

The minimum inverse rate of seismicity decreases as:

[Minimum Inverse Event Rate] = (1/f*) – *t

The gradient, *, measures the critical strain at failure and, for volcanic conditions, is (4.53.2) x 10-3; its value for Soufriere Hills is 2.5 x 10-3.

f* is the frequency of strain fluctuations; t is time.

soufriere hills montserrat 199530


Inverse Event Rate


Or now?

Alarm now?



Time (Days)

Soufriere Hills, Montserrat, 1995

The model indicates that the final (hyperbolic) acceleration evolves over ~14 days. However, several days may be needed to recognise the trend.

Thus, even under ideal conditions, only a few days might be available to forecast the time of an eruption.

Look again at Soufriere Hills. When would you issue an alert?


Increasing seismicity before eruption has been linked to the opening of a fracture between magma and the surface.

How reliable is this acceleration as a precursor?

Can it end in a false alarm, without an eruption?


Rate of Seismicity


False Alarms

Fractures may also form that do not reach either the magma or the surface.

Growth of these fractures may yield the same accelerations in seismicity as pre-eruptive signals.

Use of seismicity alone may thus lead to false alarms (blue stars).



At volcanoes reawakening after at least several decades:

The first signs of unrest may be detected months or years before eruption.

The final approach to eruption may trigger an acceleration in seismicity up to 14 days beforehand.

Emergency warning times are unlikely to be reliable more than a few days in advance.

Episodes of increasing seismicity may also occur without eruption.

The public must be made aware of the possibility of false alarms: this is important to maintain public trust during an emergency.


The Future

Questions now being addressed include:

Can we distinguish between pre-eruptive and non-eruptive accelerations in seismicity?

Can we use precursory signals before the final 14 days to increase warning times?

How can we incorporate other types of precursor to improve forecasts?

Project Volcalert

Sebastien Chastin

Claire Collins

Marielle Collombet

Torsten Dahm

Giuseppe De Natale

Jean-Robert Grasso

Christopher Kilburn

Ian Main

Adriana Nave

Eleonora Rivalta

Giuseppe Rolandi

Carmen Solana

Claudia Troise

Oliver Willetts

Photo Credits:Christopher Kilburn unless otherwise stated.

For more information, visit:

or write to Christopher Kilburn at: