From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published April 19, 2010 03:48 PM

The Icelandic Cauldron

At this point most people know that a volcano erupted in Iceland spewing forth tons of ash that have grounded countless flights. What is less known is the intense thermal emissions (at least 60 megawatts, or 60 million watts) emanating from the vent at the base of the massive plume. This is just the energy released by heat into the atmosphere. This thermal emission, equivalent to the energy consumption of 60,000 homes, represents only a small proportion of the total energy being released by the volcano as its molten lava interacts violently with ice and water.


A NASA research team is using the latest advances in satellite artificial intelligence to speed up estimates of the heat and volume of lava escaping from an erupting volcano in Iceland.

On March 20, 2010, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano awakened for the first time in 120 years, spewing still active lava fountains and flows. A network of sensors on the ground and aboard NASA's Earth Observing (EO)-1 satellite, automatically alerted researchers to this new volcanic "hot spot" and began observation and measurement.

Science craft software enabled the spacecraft to analyze science data on board and then notify researchers on the ground within 90 minutes of detecting events, and then set up the satellite to observe those events more closely. EO-1 was able to take advantage of recently uploaded "smart" software that allows the spacecraft to react quickly to an event and to rapidly down link the data for processing by ground personnel in less than 24 hours. That process used to take three weeks for researchers to do.

"Use of autonomous systems in this way represents a new way of doing science, where spacecraft can think for themselves and react to dynamic and often transient events," explained Ashley Davies, lead scientist for NASA's New Millennium Program-Space Technology 6 Autonomous Science craft Experiment at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Less than 24 hours after the satellite's first observation, the JPL team confirmed the volcano was emitting more than one billion watts of energy -- enough to power 40,000 passenger cars at the same time -- and discharging more than six tons of lava per second.

Even with that in mind the Eyjafjallajökull eruption is not the largest ever seen. The Krakatoa eruption of 1883 put forth an estimated 200+ megatons of dynamite equivalent energy, was heard hundreds of miles away and darkened skies affecting overall climate for years. Mount Saint Helen in Washington state in 1980 had only 24 megatons of energy released. The eruption of Thera around 1600 BC is estimated as being more than 6 times larger than Krakatoa.

The NASA fully automated process accelerated distribution of images to volcanologists studying the eruption. Rapid calculations of lava volume (known as the effusion rate) and location can help determine the likely direction of lava flows, while giving emergency managers advance warning to plan and deploy resources, and carry out informed evacuations.

There is concern that this eruption might precede another larger eruption at the Katla volcano nearby. In the past, all three known eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull triggered subsequent Katla eruptions.

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