In what may sound like a plotline from one of the Avengers movies, scientists are going to beam cosmic ray particles into Mount Etna, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Far from an evil megalomaniacal supervillain’s plan, the technique will allow them to build up a three-dimensional image of its subterranean magma network, which should help volcanologists predict the behavior of future eruptions at the Sicilian volcano. The study is detailed in pre-print submitted to the journal Nuclear Physics A.
Mount Etna is notoriously unpredictable; as such, it’s already heavily monitored. In recent times, large, fast-moving lava flows have emerged from the mountain, causing almost incalculable damage to the infrastructure and prompting the evacuation of millions. Twenty-five percent of the population of Sicily lives in its shadow, and another devastating eruption akin to the 1669 event – which killed more than 20,000 people back then – would be a disaster.
Image credit: Etna is an unpredictable, violent volcano with many eruption styles. Wead/Shutterstock
Volcanologists have spent decades attempting to predict when major lava outpourings will occur from Mount Etna, and how they will flow down the mountain. By using a telescope to look at how cosmic ray particles called muons travel through the volcano, they will be able to map out the future pathways the magma will take to the surface prior to an eruptive episode.
Unlike X-rays, these particles are able to penetrate far deeper through material, including thick volcanic rock. By placing an emitter on one side of a volcano, and a detecting panel on the other, scientists are able to use these extremely precise beams of muons to detect small changes in the space they’re traveling through. For Etna, the ASTRI SST-2M telescope, which would normally look for powerful explosions in deep space, will act as the detector.
Image credit: The ASTRI SST-2M telescope. Catalano et al.
This technique is called muon tomography or “muography,” something that has already been shown to successfully track the migration of magma through the inside of the Asama and Usu volcanoes in Japan through the hidden “plumbing network” of cracks and pipes beneath the surface. It’s also been used to peer inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, both this year and as far back as 1970.
In fact, this isn’t even the first time that an Italian volcano will be imaged in this way. The Mu-Ray project is designed to map the inside of Mount Vesuvius, an incredible dangerous volcano infamous for burying Pompeii and Herculaneum in the year 79 C.E.
This volcano hasn’t seen a major eruption since 1944, and volcanologists are anxious that the next event will be catastrophic, although no one is exactly sure when it will likely be. Imaging its innards will assist them in tracking the upward movement of magma towards the surface, allowing them to predict to some degree how the volcano may erupt.