ALL POINTS ALERT CERN LHC: Active volcanoes get quiet before they erupt

WASHINGTON, June 24 (UPI) — For the first time, researchers have identified a quantifiable method for anticipating the eruption of an active volcano. New data suggests a period of quiet almost always precedes an explosive eruption.

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A number of signs can tip scientists off to the impending eruption of a dormant volcano. An increase in seismic activity, the outflow of gases and geologic deformation are all warning signals.

But for scientists monitoring active volcanoes, recognizing changes amidst the constant seismic background noise and volcanic emissions is much more difficult.

In 2009, a team of researchers from the Carnegie Institute for Science, Penn State, Oxford University, the University of Iceland and the Nicaraguan Institute of Earth Sciences began installing a system of instruments to better monitor the fluctuations of Nicaragua’s Telica Volcano. The cone-shaped stratovolcano erupted in 2011, and researchers were uniquely prepared to decipher the warning signs in the lead up to the eruption.

Their analysis revealed a lack of deep seismicity or deformation in the lead up to the initial explosion. The researchers also identified subtle anomalies in sulfur dioxide gas emissions. Their findings showed that the eruption was not inspired by fresh magma, but by a buildup of pressure following a sealed vent.

The eruption was not actually a single explosion, but a series of small to medium ash explosions lasting more than a month. Of the 50 explosions, 35 were preceded by 30 or more minutes of quiet. Thirteen more were preceded by 5-minute quiet periods. Only two were without warning silence.

“It is the proverbial calm before the storm,” Diana Roman, a volcanologist at the Carnegie Institute for Science, said in a news release. “The icing on the cake is that we could also use these quiet periods to forecast the amount of energy released.”

Ancient Earth had more than 2 magnetic poles

We don’t often think about Earth’s magnetic poles except when we’re navigating; we take it for granted that the Earth conveniently has two poles — one in the north and one in the south — and that our compasses point north.

But it turns out this arrangement was not always the case, according to new research out of the Carnegie Institution of Science. In fact, during a period between 500 million years ago and 1 billion years ago, something strange happened to Earth’s magnetosphere. Multiple poles suddenly sprang up across the globe, causing the planet’s magnetic field to go haywire. It very well could have caused life on Earth to be thrown into utter disarray.

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“These findings could offer an explanation for the bizarre fluctuations in magnetic field direction seen in the geologic record around 600 to 700 million years ago,” explained Peter Driscoll, the researcher who spearheaded the Carnegie study, which is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “And there are widespread implications for such dramatic field changes.”

What could have caused this sudden shift? It’s generally understood that Earth’s two-pole magnetic field comes from the rotation of the planet’s liquid iron core around a smaller, solid core. But that inner core was not always solid. At some point in the planet’s history, it must have transformed from a molten state into a solid one.

Driscoll believes this event may have been what happened between 0.5 and 1 billion years ago. As the inner core began to solidify, it wreaked havoc on the magnetic field. This period of chaos likely lasted until the inner core was completely solidified.

If true, the findings could dramatically alter how we study and understand Earth’s geological history, particularly when it comes to how magnetic measurements are used to reconstruct continental motions and ancient climates. Since the magnetosphere is also responsible for shielding the planet from the sun’s radiation, it may have had consequences for the evolution of life during this time too. A many-poled magnetic field likely would have offered much weaker protection.

More research will be needed to confirm Driscoll’s theory, but these results nevertheless serve as a reminder of how much we take for granted the stability of Earth’s systems. We’re a tiny dot in a hostile cosmos, and the stability we enjoy today may not always be the case.