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Predicting Lava Flow - 2002-05-05

Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo are spending a lot of time worrying about volcanoes. Now, geological conditions in this relatively flat, volcano-less region of the American northeast shouldn't warrant such concern. But the UB scientists are employing the university's super computers, and virtual reality, to help protect people in other parts of the world where volcanoes, and the molten rock that erupts from them, are a major threat. Computer simulations are being used for the first time to accurately predict the potentially deadly path of lava flows.

For years, scientists have been able to reliably forecast when a volcanic eruption will occur. But for the first time, thanks in part to a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, technology is being harnessed to help people avoid the searingly hot streams of molten lava that flow out of an erupting volcano.

UB engineer Abani Patra, who is chief investigator on the project, gives us an overview of the complicated science behind lava flow prediction. It's a multi-disciplinary technology that combines complex mathematical language, 3D simulations and high-altitude photographic images that can be downloaded, within seconds, by a computer anywhere in the world.

Mr. Patra says the data can be assembled into information that officials near the eruption site can use to direct public evacuations. "There is a clear distinction between data and information.~ And what is information for a scientist is not necessarily information for a lay person," he says. "A lay person needs to know - do I need to get into my car and get the heck out of here?"

A team of UB geologists, engineers, and mathematicians is busy translating the virtual reality predictions into real world use. Their initial focus is on three Mexican volcanoes, including the country's most active one in Colima. UB Geologist Michael Sheridan knows first hand how difficult it can be to respond effectively to the crisis of an erupting volcano. "I've been in volcanic crises for the last 25 years, and I know what goes on inside those rooms," he says. "People standing there arguing, this is going to happen, that's going to happen. Where do they get these ideas? Generally, it's an international community, so it's something like the Olympic judging. We want to get rid of that, and allow a clear plan to be available."

The rugged, soft-spoken scientist has been jumping on planes in the middle of the night for decades, responding to the deadly aftermath of volcanoes, like the 1998 eruption in Casita, Nicaragua that killed 2000 people. Until now, scientists usually showed up at such sites with too little information to help move local residents to safety.

Back in his office, Professor Sheridan talks with Mexican student Gabrell Legorreta. The geologist demonstrates how computer simulations, displayed on a conventional personal computer, will soon be helping to protect Gabrell's family, in far away Mexico City.

Legorreta: "So, in this kind of representation, I can put land use or cities that could be affected by that kind of eruption?"
Sheridan: "Absolutely!"

Professor Sheridan says the 3D technology is a vast improvement from the flat topography maps used now, which many lay people can't read. There's a line (on the map), and inside the line appears to be dangerous, outside the line appears to be safe," he says. "But with a simulation, people can understand a view from a prominent place in their village, and see what realistic mud flows or lavas would look like coming down a valley toward their town."

By this summer, probability models are expected to be available on the Internet, for at least the most active Mexican volcanoes Popocatepetl, Colima, and Pico Orizaba. Public officials will also be able to transfer the computerized images to CD-ROM or video, and hand carry them to people in remote, unwired areas without access to the Internet. Scientists are hoping these pictures will be worth more than 1,000 words… they're hoping they will save thousands of lives.