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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Volcanic eruptions score melodies
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Mount Etna erupts
Mount Etna is Europe's largest active volcano
The low-frequency, seismic rumblings of volcanoes are being transformed into delicate musical scores in an effort to predict when they will erupt.

Researchers in Italy have already created a concerto from the underground movements of Mount Etna on Sicily.

They are now creating melodies from Ecuador's recently erupted Tungurahua.

By correlating the music with precise stages of volcanic activity on both volcanoes the team hope to learn the signature tune of an imminent eruption.

"If you can identify the musical patterns that warn of an eruption then you can implement civil protection measures, days or even hours before the event," said Professor Roberto Barbera of the University of Catania.

Difficult predictions

At the moment there is no definitive method to predict the eruption of a volcano.

Scientists monitor seismic waves, the number of earthquakes and the intensity of a specific type of quake known as harmonic tremors in the run up to eruptions.

Other researchers monitor the change in the shape of the volcano or concentrations of gases emitted from the cone.

It's like a musician playing a piano. You would never imagine it was a volcano playing the music.
Professor Roberto Barbera

This week, researchers in Italy also put forward a new technique, known as seismic tomography, which may help to monitor volcanic hazards in the future.

The method, reported in the journal Science, gives detailed snapshots of magma movements inside the volcano in a similar way to a medical CAT scan.

The technique has been used to show magma movement during Mount Etna's pre-eruptive and eruptive phases between 2001 and 2003.

The musical method, known as data sonification, adds a further tool to the vulcanologist's tool box.

Musical scores

Data sonification transforms complex data into audible sounds. It has previously been used to analyse astronomical data from the Shoemaker Levy comet collision with Jupiter.

The data sonification software used on Mount Etna was invented by Dr Domenico Vicinanza at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics. It transforms the inaudible seismic waves that travel through the Earth into music.

Researchers in Hawaii have previously listened for the sound signature of a pre-eruptive volcano using infrasound - low-frequency sound beyond the scope of the human ear.

Screen shot of the melody making software (copyright: Domenico Vicinanza)
The technique overlays seismograms with music notes

The Pacific team used the global infrasound network, a "listening system" that was originally intended to detect nuclear explosions to verify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The system put forward by the Italian researchers creates music audible to the human ear.

To create the volcanic score, the team take a seismogram - a graphical record of an earthquake that records the timing and intensity of seismic waves - and trace the peaks and troughs on to blank music bars.

They then overlay the contours with musical notes. A digital synthesiser can then play the score.

"It's like a musician playing a piano. You would never imagine it was a volcano playing the music," said Professor Barbera.

Data tap

To look for tell tale signatures in the tunes the team use music pattern recognition software.

The software has previously been used to analyse symphonies by Mozart to look for similarities between different compositions and to detect copyright fraud.

Mount Tungurahua
The project is now analysing the music of volcanoes in Latin America

Because there is a huge amount of data to crunch the team distribute the data on a grid network.

Grid computing uses a distributed approach to solving one problem. The processing power of hundreds of computers are tapped, vastly cutting down on the time it takes to get a result.

"You can send data to France, Argentina, Mexico and Italy and then merge the results," said Professor Barbera. "You can grab computing power wherever it is."

The team use the two grid networks run by the EU funded Enabling Grids for E-science (EGEE) and the E-Infrastructure shared between Europe and Latin America (EELA) projects.

So far the team have crunched several hours of music from Etna and have found some distinctive patterns. They are now expanding the analysis to Tungurahua in Ecuador to check whether the same tunes reoccur.

The Latin American project is still in its early stages but the team have big hopes for their technique.

"The volcanoes are completely different but from the musical point of view perhaps we can identify some similarities," added Professor Barbera.

Volcano music

Ecuador volcano sparks evacuation
17 Jul 06 |  Americas
In pictures: Ecuador volcano
16 Jul 06 |  In Pictures
Clues to Etna's future eruptions
01 May 03 |  Science/Nature
Listening to 'singing volcanoes'
14 Feb 03 |  Denver 2003
Living with a volcano
15 Mar 00 |  Europe

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