Physicist Who Can Read Moods of the Rumbling Volcanoes

DUBAI - As a child, Andrew McGonigle couldn’t decide between two subjects he had a passion for — geography and physics.

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Dhanusha Gokulan

Published: Sun 23 Nov 2008, 1:30 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 7:22 PM

AndrewMcGonigle.—KTPhotoby S. NairEventually he chose to go with physics, but all he wanted to do was to get back to studying the earth and environmental sciences. So when a position came up for a physicist to monitor volcanic gas plumes, he did not think twice and there has been no looking back for him since then.

Scottish physicist McGonigle is one of the Rolex Enterprise Award 2008 laureates. He was honoured recently for his contribution to study on prediction of volcanic eruptions. Inspired by a technology that helps in glacier mapping, McGonigle created a remote-controlled two-metre-long helicopter that he would fly over the volcanic mountains of Etna and Stromboli. The technology created by him will help predict, weeks in advance, whether the mountains would erupt. The prediction would help save lives and property.

McGonigle has specialised in the study of air pollution and volcanic gases by using lasers and other sensing devices. He has climbed over 15 of the 60 most active volcanoes, and analysed the gas signatures of many more. His works have proved decisive for volcanic research all over, but it was the coupling of science with the emerging technology of remote-controlled aircraft that was the stroke of genius, leading to his selection for a Rolex award.

In March 2007, McGonigle, with the help of David Fisher and Prof. Alessandro Aiuppa of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, developed the prototype helicopter AERVOLC 1 and flew over a fuming vent of Vulcano, a volcanic cone near Sicily. The instruments recorded levels of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and wind speed, enabling the scientists to calculate the flow of gases from the volcano.

“For me the biggest breakthrough was getting it all to work on the test flight. I was almost in tears,” said McGonigle.

He added that he and his associates were sure of the technology’s capability to predict a volcanic eruption weeks to months ahead.

McGonigle said, “Prediction of volcanic eruptions would be a lot easier now with this technology and it can save thousands of lives. Today hundreds of millions of people in many countries dwell in the shadows of volcanic mountains in constant fear of eruption. Once the technology has been perfected it will be distributed to volcanologists all over.”

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