Alaska researchers using Facebook to study volcanoes in Italy

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Facebook is often filled with updates on pets, kids and recent meals, but a University of Alaska Fairbanks research team is using it in a new way, posting near-realtime updates of volcano research from Italy.

The Facebook page “Social window: Volcano Research in Italy — 2013” is an unprecedented look into the daily life and activities of the research team as they scale the side of the active Stromboli volcano off the north coast of Sicily.

The team, headed by UAF research professors John Dehn and Peter Webley, is testing an inexpensive way to monitor and collect data from volcanoes using off-the-shelf webcams.

“In short, our fieldwork is trying to calibrate these inexpensive cameras using the infrared digital cameras under a variety of conditions at active volcanoes,” Dehn, an associate research professor, said from Italy. “This would allow us to data-mine past eruptions for accurate time temperature data and offer an inexpensive alternative to costly digital video monitoring.”

The information is compared to data collected by expensive, power-hungry thermal imaging devices typically used at the volcanoes. Webley said it will allow volcanoes around the world to be more easily and affordably monitored.

The findings from the trip will also allow researchers to revisit other images captured from volcanoes around the world to find because they’ll have a better understanding of what the webcam images compare to data collected by cameras that can cost more than $10,000.

UAF graduate student Martin Harrild said many of the cameras they’re using are familiar to what people see everyday.

“The equipment we are using is in no way new and used in everyday life, just with different purposes,” he said. “For example, we use small security dome cameras normally seen mounted on the ceiling of a shop for surveillance or webcams that sit on top of computer for Internet video calling. These devices not only saves a lot of money, but many people have access to these sort of devices.”

The team concluded their research last week, but its Facebook page is filled with daily updates and pictures from the volcano. There isn’t much raw data posted on the site, but it shows crews working with red-hot volcanic eruptions in the background and other behind-the-scenes looks at their work.

“Raising public awareness of volcanoes and their impacts is always a good thing,” Dehn said. “Because it doesn’t happen to too many people frequently, it’s not the sort of thing people are generally prepared for, until it’s a crisis. By having this more in the forefront of people’s minds, it saves time in communication for everyone during a crisis.”

But don’t expect to see every volcano monitoring station to be readily linked into social media. The crew specifically went to the Stromboli volcano because it’s in walking distance to Internet signals.

A trip to a remote island would be less practical.

“For example, a trip to the central Aleutians wouldn’t work,” Dehn explained, “because we’d be out there running on (limited) solar power with no Internet or any other infrastructure. But a trip to Central America might be great.”

However, Dehn said he expects Internet connections and social media to get better, just like as cameras became vastly improved over the last decade.

“In the near future, with almost everywhere on the earth more accessible, and phone based cameras with geolocation producing a plethora of images on social media, gathering those images may make an effective near real time or after the fact to develop eruption histories,” he said. “A sort of flash mob volcano monitoring.”

The team said the research as well as the near-constant tie to social media has been an interesting way to do research and added that they would like to see such outreach to continue in future research around the world.

“I would love to see more examples of these social media field campaigns being formed,” Harrild said. “I feel these methods are an effective way to gain interest from the younger generation. … It reminds me of how I was first introduced to the world of volcanoes through a National Geographic documentary, with spectacular imagery and amazing videos.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner,

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