Predicting when a volcano will erupt is a complex and somewhat Sisyphean task. When a team of volcanologists think that they’ve nailed precisely how to tell when an eruption will occur, a separate volcanic event or an unexpected blast shows them that there’s still a lot to learn.
Recent studies all seem to have one thing in common, though: Immediately before an eruption is due to take place, there is some sort of activity at the vent or just beneath the surface, whether that be a sudden uptick in gaseous emissions, ground deformation, smaller ruptures at the surface, or – most significantly of all – seismic activity.
Writing in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, a team of geophysicists have come to a rather striking conclusion: In some cases, there is absolutely no activity prior to a volcanic eruption, somewhat in the same way that there is no activity immediately preceding a major earthquake along a fault line.
Telica Volcano, the case study for this particular piece of research. Riderfoot/Shutterstock
“It is the proverbial calm before the storm,” lead author Diana Roman, a volcanologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, said in a statement.
The team focused their efforts on Telica Volcano in Nicaragua, a tall, dangerous stratovolcano in the same category as Mount St. Helens. They began monitoring this small fiery mountain in 2009, and by 2011, they had a network of equipment analyzing every possible physical characteristic of the volcano within a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) radius.