How do you see inside the volcano? Experiment with a storm of cosmic particles.
With the help of a detector, you can get a two-dimensional picture of the interior of a volcano, “like a medical X-ray,” said David Mahon, a meteorologist at the University of Glasgow. “By using multiple detectors around the object, it is possible to create a crude 3-D image.”
After using myography to view inside a harmless Japanese mountain in 1995, the technique was eventually deployed to active volcanoes. One of the first successful expeditions was to Mount Osama in Japan, where researchers found a mound of lava buried above a Swiss cheese-like magmatic passage. It has since been used to observe the Athena and Stramboli volcanoes in Italy, the highly active Sakurajima volcano in Japan, and the La Sofre de Guadeloupe volcano in the Caribbean.
Muons have found vulnerabilities that indicate ways to avoid future shores, landslides and lava flows. They also found fresh magma pockets that could be prepared to explode and were overlooked by other devices.
Volcanic mammography is not perfect. Detectives can only see the parts of the volcano that muons are entering. “You can only look at the sky from below,” said Marina Rosas Carbagel, a volcano geophysicist at the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, who was not involved in the study. Muns are unable to penetrate the deeper parts of the volcano, leaving these areas largely confined to myographers.
Installing detectors around dozens of more volcanoes, and subverting volcanic rocks to mayonnaise in laboratories, will improve the accuracy of the technique as it is for mainstream use. But even if it becomes commonplace, it will not solve all our volcanic problems.
“Volcanoes are extremely complex,” said Dr. Rosas Carbajel. The interior of their maze and the complex chemistry mean that their magma will occasionally escape detectives. Unexpected bursts will remain a fact of life, no matter how well scientists work the magic of muons.
And various other instruments used to study volcanoes from myography, such as seismic waves and satellite observations, are unlikely to be obsolete. “It cannot replace existing techniques,” said Vitaly Kadriatsov, a particle physicist at the University of Sheffield who was not involved in the study. “But it can fulfill them.”