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Johnson publishes on ‘linguistics’ of volcanoes

Mount Etna, Italy: one of the most active volcanoes in the world, according to the European Space Agency. For Boise State’s Jeffrey Johnson, this volcano’s special “voice” is proving to be key to understanding the “linguistics” of volcanoes.

Johnson, a professor of geosciences, published a paper in Nature’s Scientific Reports about infrasonic gliding at Mount Etna, where he collaborated with the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology during a sabbatical exchange in 2018.

In his research, Johnson and his collaborators studied the inaudible infrasound at Mount Etna. They identified an infrasonic signal from the volcano, the tune of which changed in the hours leading up to a kilometer-high lava fountain, which lasted hours. As Johnson summarizes, “we were ‘listening’ to the volcanic conduit becoming shorter as magma was rising; this type of signal is called gliding.”

On top of the excitement of deciphering the language of volcanic activity, Johnson and his team have found themselves corroborating a hypothesis from previous work in Chile, where scientists speculated that rising magma in the conduit was responsible for rising frequencies.

“The exciting part is that we could apply this tool to other volcanoes in the hopes we can forecast future big eruptions,” Johnson said. “Volcano monitoring with infrasound is a growing field. Our lab at Boise State stands out because it is capable of building scientific-grade infrasound sensors at very low cost and promoting this technology to a global network of collaborators.”

Johnson worked with National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology affiliates Marianagela Sciotto, Andrea Cannata, Massimo Cantarero, Emanuela De Beni, as well as Leighton M. Watson of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. The group was funded by the National Science Foundation. Johnson also cites his peers in Boise State University’s lab to be major contributors, including Research Professor Jake Anderson, master’s student Jerry Mock, and both former and current undergraduates Tamara Satterwhite, Taylor Tatum, Owen Walsh, and Tim Ronan.  The Boise State infrasound lab sensors are currently installed at volcanoes worldwide.

-By Sarah Rogers