Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are amongst the most spectacular and sometimes deadliest natural events. Generally, it is believed that tectonic earthquakes may trigger volcanic activity. However, the underlying mechanisms are poorly constrained.
In a recent study, an international team of scientists determined the conditions needed for an earthquake to trigger a volcanic eruption.
Scientists compiled a large selection of existing data: from syrup volcano laboratory-models to infrared satellite monitoring and complex mathematical models describing earthquakes’ behavior.
University of Canterbury (UC) doctoral candidate Gilles Seropian said, “The variety of data used in the study was impressive. It required a team effort to gather and understand it all, but it’s quite exciting to work with such different aspects of science, trying to find a way to combine them into something useful.”
Using the data, scientists created a single, useable model covering most aspects of how earthquakes impact volcanoes.
The study focussed on three key parameters:
- The viscosity of the magma in the volcano, or how sticky it is.
- How easily gas can escape from the volcano. If gas is trapped at depth, the pressure will build and lead to an explosion.
- Hydrothermal systems – located at the topmost part of a volcano, a hydrothermal method is a catalyst for turning water into steam.
Mount Ruapehu’s crater lake, Mount Tongariro’s steam vents, and Rotorua’s geysers are recognizable examples of hydrothermal systems within New Zealand.
These parameters dictate how a volcano could respond to a big shake. Moreover, these parameters are measurable aspects of every volcano, regardless of location and size. If an earthquake takes place near a volcano, experts will be able to determine its response, based on these parameters’ behaviors, as they apply to that volcano.
Hydrothermal systems are susceptible to earthquakes. If they are destabilized following an earthquake, they could cascade to the magma, triggering an eruption.
- Seropian, G., Kennedy, B.M., Walter, T.R. et al. A review framework of how earthquakes trigger volcanic eruptions. Nat Commun 12, 1004 (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-21166-8