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Hot news on volcanoes

Updated Tuesday 24th July 2007

While attending international conferences (IAVCEI, IUGG), David Rothery finds how Google Earth is increasingly useful for earth scientists.

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Well, that's it until the autumn - no more overseas trips for me until then. I've just returned from a vast meeting of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) held in Perugia, Italy - a super place to visit if you don't mind steep streets.

With its hilltop-location, abundance of white stone and succession of archways it would be hard to find anywhere more evocative of Tolkien's Minas Tirith, though in place of the Tower Guard the piazza with the fountain was occupied by musicians and fans in town for the Umbrian Jazz Festival. The 'double booking'  of the town for a major international science congress and the jazz festival made accommodation hard to find, and some of my colleagues had to bus in daily from Assisi, 30 km away. Fortunately, thanks to my astute use of the internet to find myself a hotel back in April, I was staying within walking distance of everywhere - and in fact had unknowingly booked myself into the hotel 'reserved' (by the conference organisers) for IUGG officers, so I rubbed shoulders with the great and the good at breakfast.

IUGG is an umbrella organisation for several associations that usually meet independently except for this four-yearly general assembly. I belong to the International Association of Volcanology & Chemistry of the Earth Interior (which is such a mouthfull that the acronym IAVCEI is almost always spoken rather than the full name). I spent one whole day exclusively in a session about the use of remote sensing (chiefly satellite images) for assessing volcanoes, and took the opportunity to present some of my own plans for analysing volcanic terrain on the planet Mercury, which I talked about in my previous blog: Mercury or bust. It was great to catch up with colleagues, and former students, whom I had not seen for several years. One thing that struck me is the extent to which Google Earth has become part of the fabric of both research and outreach for volcanologists. Google Earth visualizations were used to illustrate several of the best talks, including one that showed the location of a volcanic ash cloud in 3-D - an important tool to helping decision-makers re-route aircraft so that their engines don't choke by sucking in airborne ash particles when they fly downwind of an erupting volcano.

An old friend of mine from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is heading a project called the ASTER Volcano Archive to incorporate images from a satellite instrument called ASTER into Google Earth. This allows any of the world's 1500 volcanoes to be seen at a resolution of only 15 metres per pixel, using data of uniform quality and avoiding the patchwork effect common in other Google Earth visualizations that tend to use a mixed bag of air photos and satellite images to stitch together the view of the terrain. I had a play with it this morning, and it did not take me long to produce this visualization of Mt St Helens. Try it yourself - it's a lot of fun, and if you stay inside Google Earth you can change the viewing direction and rotate the image so that the topography really comes to life.

Visualization of Mt St Helens Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Google Earth
Three-dimensional view of Mt St Helens using an ASTER image recorded 26 Sept 2006

 

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