The worst volcanic events in history have resulted in the destruction of towns, food shortages and even massive deaths and while earthquakes and smoke coming out of the volcano could indicate an impending volcanic eruption, these warning signs are not always reliable.
A project undertaken by Phil Wannamaker, from the Energy and Geoscience Institute of the University of Utah, and colleagues, however, could provide scientists more information about volcanoes and their inner workings that could pave way for them to more reliably predict a volcanic eruption in the future and help mitigate its unwanted consequences.
For their study "Pathway from subducting slab to surface for melt and fluids beneath Mount Rainier," which was published in the journal Nature on July 16, Wannamaker and colleagues used seismic and magnetotelluric imaging technology to paint a detailed picture of the plumbing underneath Mount Rainier, an active volcano that the U.S. Geological Survey says would erupt again.
Among the objectives that the researchers laid out for their study is to have a better understanding of the 14,410-foot volcano's magma flow and here's what they have learned:
Water escapes as a sinking plate about 50 miles beneath Mt. Rainier increases heat and pressure. The rising liquid then triggers the melting of rocks and the water and magma mixture that forms goes straight up with other fluids from shallower depths towards a magma reservoir that is between 5 to 10 miles thick which extends up to 10 miles to the west of the volcano and is about 5 miles beneath the ground.
"Specifically, we are able to identify and connect fluid release at or near the top of the slab, migration of fluids into the overlying mantle wedge, melting in the wedge, and transport of the melt/fluid phase to a reservoir in the crust beneath Mt Rainier," the researchers wrote.
Wannamaker and colleagues, however, said that their findings won't yet allow scientists to know when Mount Rainier will erupt again. The volcano is considered as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
"This is the most direct image yet capturing the melting process that feeds magma into a crustal reservoir that eventually is tapped for eruptions," Wannamaker said. "But it does not provide any information on the timing of future eruptions from Mount Rainier or other Cascade Range volcanoes."
Despite this limitation, Wannamaker said that learning about the inner working of volcanoes could possibly contribute to the developments of such a more reliable warning system.