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USF Geologists Studying Recent Historic Volcano Eruption in Nicaragua

Erupting for the first time since 1905, fiery volcano in Nicaragua provides USF faculty and students with unique research and collaboration experience studying lava flow and its risks to critical infrastructure.

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2016) – University of South Florida faculty members and students from the School of Geosciences, led by professor Charles Connor, will soon be returning to Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano to continue working with Central American colleagues in a variety of activities aimed at better understanding the eruptions which have been ongoing since its first eruption in December.

Before going back, the USF research team is currently analyzing lava flow data gathered in Dec., when the team was on the ground in Nicaragua within days of the historic eruption.

A major aspect of their involvement included placing sensors around the volcano to collect lava flow data. The USF scientists use the data to verify the “lava flow code” they have previously developed for forecasting lava flow direction and rate. According to Connor, the data provided by fellow USF professor Tim Dixon’s radar technology is helping to build a comprehensive picture of the dangers posed by the volcano to a nearby geothermal plant and surrounding communities. The plant supplies electricity to the area, including the capital city of Managua.

“Lava flow models are used to forecast areas of inundation, given a particular eruption magnitude and location,” said Connor. “A lava flow model simulates the flow of lava from a “vent” and calibrated by field measurements of lava flow thickness against a digital elevation model of the topography. That data is used to construct a probability model to evaluate lava flow hazards.”

According to Dixon and Connor, volcanic hazard assessments are often conducted near critical facilities, such as nuclear power plants, dams or ports. Lava flows are considered to be beyond design basis for nuclear facilities.

The USF team first visited Momotombo in Dec. to collect a variety of data and to assist scientists at the Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territorales (INETER) in their study of the eruption. INETER, Nicaragua’s geologic survey, asked USF geologists to provide emergency assistance in monitoring the volcano’s continuing eruptions.

Jose Armanado Saballos, advisor for volcanology at INETER and a recent USF graduate, coordinated the assistance effort.

“The eruption was not forecasted by INETER because their seismic network was disabled and they lacked funds to fix it,” explained Connor. “We witnessed a violent eruption that blasted Volkswagen-sized blocks hundreds of meters from the crater. Fortunately, we were at a safe distance, yet able to get very precise measurements of stability and elevation changes - the first of their kind at an erupting volcano - using the new USF radar instrument.”

Members of the USF team carried out other analyses in the shadow of the crater and deployed three geodetic GPS units around Momotombo on Dec. 7-8 to augment the existing network. These were left in place there or will be used at other volcano sites.

Connor has also proposed creating a joint U.S. - Nicaraguan research station in Leon, Nicaragua to improve hazard prediction, mitigation and provide an educational setting for student training.

In addition to this work, the USF volcano experts have begun working with NASA and the Washington, DC-based Goddard Space Flight Center to develop the technical means to gather data on lava flow occurring on the planet Mars.

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