Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Article excerpt

Andrew McGonigle, 35, a Scottish physicist and volcanologist, is in the process of developing a model helicopter that can measure gases released before a volcanic eruption. The technology could not only eliminate the dangerous task of taking hand measurements from the crater, but also provide enough data to predict eruptions weeks, even months, in advance. Natalie Hoare spoke to him in Dubai, where he was presented with a US$100, 000 prize at the biennial Rolex Awards for Enterprise

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By monitoring the gases released underground, we can find out about the magmas, which can help us with forecasting. As magma rises, there's a decrease in pressure, causing various gases to be released. Carbon dioxide is the first out, usually when the magma reaches about ten kilometres [below the surface]. If you can measure this gas when it reaches this mark, then we have an early means of inferring that the magma will reach the surface and an eruption is probably imminent.

Remote-controlled helicopters provide a potentially new and exciting way of doing things. [In the past], this measurement has been very difficult to make, as there's a high concentration of C[O.sub.2] in the background atmosphere. [To eliminate this], you can either deploy highly sensitive sensors on the crater rim, or you mount the payload on a remote-controlled helicopter, as we've been doing, and fly it into the gas plume.

We've known about the relationship between C[O.sub.2] and eruptions for some time, but this is probably the first serious experimental validation of that theoretical concept. We're extending that by enabling the measurement to be made from the helicopter, without anyone having to go near the crater rim.

British remote-controlled helicopter champion Dave Fisher has been piloting the model, which has a bunch of equipment strapped to it and requires great skill to fly. So far, we've proved the concept in the most cost-effective way using an off-the-shelf model that has a range of a few hundred metres. The next step is to see if we can make the measurements using a model that anyone can fly. The prize money will enable us to buy a future-generation helicopter that has a flight interface that can be programmed to fly to various GPS co-ordinates or navigated manually.

Six hundred million people worldwide are viewed to be living close enough to a potentially active volcano that if it goes off, they could be at risk. Every year, between 50 and 70 volcanoes go off, and at any one time, there are between 20 and 30 going off around the world. To give a rough, ball-park figure, 100,000 people die from volcanic activity every century. …

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