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Monitoring Volcanic Activity with Remote Sensing Technology

Iceland's recent volcanic eruptions, particularly on the Reykjanes Peninsula, have highlighted the critical role of remote sensing technology in monitoring and managing volcanic activity. Remote sensing provides a unique and vital capability to monitor natural disasters in real-time, offering invaluable data for safety measures, scientific research, and environmental monitoring.

Overview of the Recent Eruption:

  • The Sundhnúkur volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula has erupted multiple times recently, with significant activity reported in May 2024.

  • A 3.5-kilometer-long fissure allows for observing lava flows as high as 50 meters. In the neighboring town of Grindavík, the eruption has caused evacuations and traffic closures.

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Role of Remote Sensing in Volcanic Monitoring:

Remote sensing involves using satellite or airborne sensors to collect information about the Earth's surface. For volcanic monitoring, remote sensing provides valuable data on various parameters, including:

Thermal Activity:

(Credit : An example of a thermal image of Sheveluch volcano, 17 October 2022 (taken by Nuzhdaev I.A. with Zenmuse H20T camera, manufactured by DJI, Shenzhen, China))

Infrared sensors detect heat anomalies, indicating rising magma and changes in surface temperature. This data is crucial for identifying potential eruption sites and monitoring the intensity of volcanic activity.

MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer): It captures data in 36 spectral bands, allowing for comprehensive analysis of thermal anomalies and environmental changes associated with volcanic eruptions. Its high temporal resolution enables frequent monitoring, providing near real-time information critical for early warning and disaster response.

Gas Emissions:

Spectrometers on satellites measure volcanic gases, particularly sulfur dioxide (SO2). High levels of SO2 can signal magma rising towards the surface. Tracking these emissions helps volcanologists understand the volcano's behavior and potential for eruption.

TROPOMI (Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument): It is a sensor on the Sentinel-5P satellite that measures atmospheric gases, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), vital indicators of volcanic activity. By detecting and quantifying gas emissions, TROPOMI helps predict eruptions and assesses the environmental impact of volcanic plumes. Its high spatial resolution allows for detailed gas dispersion and air quality monitoring in affected regions.


Radar interferometry, such as InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), measures ground deformation. It detects slight changes in the Earth's surface that indicate magma movement beneath the volcano. This technique helps predict eruptions by revealing swelling or sinking of the ground.

(Principle of radar interferometry. Source: )

Volcanic Ash Clouds:

Optical sensors track ash plumes emitted during eruptions. This information is vital for aviation safety, as volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines. Monitoring ash clouds also helps assess surrounding areas’ environmental and health impacts.

Landsat and Sentinel Satellites: provide high-resolution imagery crucial for monitoring volcanic activity. They capture detailed images of lava flows, landscape changes, and volcanic eruptions over time. Their frequent overpasses enable consistent and comprehensive observation, aiding in assessing and managing volcanic hazards.

(Credit : Copernicus) (The SO2 plume emitted during the Cumbre Vieja eruption was detected by Sentinel-5P as it extended along the Atlantic coast of Africa, reaching as far as Spain and Portugal.)


Remote sensing has revolutionized volcanic monitoring, but challenges remain:

Cloud Cover: 

  • Optical sensors rely on clear skies to capture data effectively.

  • Volcanic eruptions often generate ash clouds, obstructing satellite views.

  • Radar and thermal sensors are used to penetrate cloud cover but add complexity to data interpretation.

Data Integration:

  • Combining data from different sensors (thermal, radar, spectrometers) requires sophisticated algorithms.

  • Ensuring accuracy in integrated datasets is crucial for decision-making during volcanic crises.

Real-Time Processing:

  • Timely remote sensing data analysis is critical for practical volcanic hazard assessment and response. However, processing large volumes of data in real- time poses computational challenges.

  • Developing and deploying algorithms capable of rapidly analyzing and interpreting incoming data streams is essential to provide actionable insights to decision-makers and emergency responders.




The Icelandic volcano's recent activity underscores remote sensing's vital role in volcanic monitoring. Remote sensing delivers critical data on thermal activity, ground deformation, gas emissions, and ash clouds, significantly enhancing our understanding of volcanic processes. This technology is instrumental in predicting eruptions and mitigating their impacts. As advancements continue, remote sensing will remain an essential tool in volcanology.



  • Korolev, S., Urmanov, I., Sorokin, A., & Girina, O. (2023). Detecting Volcano Thermal Activity in Night Images Using Machine Learning and Computer Vision. Remote Sensing, 15(19), 4815.

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