Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a new volcanic forecasting modelling program that runs on the university’s Blue Waters and iForge supercomputers. The model was able to successfully predict an eruption that happened in June 2018 in the Sierra Negra volcano in Ecuador; with an error margin of just one single day.
The research has been published in an article titled, “Forecasting mechanical failure and the 26 June 2018 eruption of Sierra Negra Volcano, Galápagos, Ecuador,” in Science Advances.
In 2017, geology professor Patricia Gregg had just set up the model on the supercomputers. At the same time, another team was monitoring activity at the Sierra Negra volcano in the Galapagos Islands. Initially developed on an iMac computer, the model had already proven to be successful by recreating the eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 2008.
During the winter break of 2017-18, Gregg and other researchers ran the Sierra Negra data through the supercomputer-powered model. They completed the test run in January. Even though it was intended as a test, it ended up providing a framework to understand the volcano’s eruption cycles and to prejudice the timing of future eruptions. But no one knew that at the time.
Best of Express Premium
“Our model forecasted that the strength of the rocks that contain Sierra Negra’s magma chamber would become very unstable sometime between June 25 and July 5, and possibly result in a mechanical failure and subsequent eruption. We presented this conclusion at a scientific conference in March 2018. After that, we became busy with other work and did not look at our models again until Dennis texted me on June 26, asking me to confirm the date we had forecasted. Sierra Negra erupted one day after our earliest forecasted mechanical failure date. We were floored,” said Gregg, in a press statement.
According to Gregg, Sierra Negra is a “well-behaved volcano,” meaning that it has telltale signs before eruptions in the past; things like groundswelling, gas release and increased seismic activity. This made Sierra Negra an ideal test case for the model. But not all volcanoes follow such patterns, according to the researchers. This makes forecasting eruptions one of the greatest challenges in volcanology.
Even though this represents an ideal scenario, the study shows the power of incorporating high-performance supercomputers into research. According to Yan Zhen, a co-author of the study, the advantage of the supercomputer-powered model is its ability to continuously assimilate multidisciplinary, real-time data and process it rapidly to provide a daily forecast.