‘Can quickly wake up’ Scientists expose eruption risk of Mexico’s Nevado de Toluca volcano

The volcano Nevado de Toluca in central Mexico has been silent for more than 3,000 years now. The fiery mountain towers over the nearby city of Toluca and sits about 50 miles (80km) west of Mexico City. The stratovolcano is Mexico’s fourth-tallest peak and according to a team of Swiss volcanologists, it could one day erupt a devastating amount of magma.

Researchers from the University of Geneva and the University of Heidelberg in Germany have devised a novel way of predicting the eruption risk of volcanoes.

The volcanologists used the crystal mineral zircon, which is contained in volcanic rock, to determine what could happen when Nevado de Toluca wakes up.

The team determined up to 350 cubic kilometres or 12,360,000,000,000 cubic feet of magma could be released.

This is about four times the volume of the water contained in Lake Geneva.

The researchers published their terrifying findings in the journal Nature Communications.

They believe their technique can be applied to almost any type of volcano across the globe.

And with an estimated 800 million people living near volcanoes, the findings could be critical towards preventing the loss of life.

Predicting how volcanoes will behave is trucky because their magma reservoirs are stored up to six miles (10km) underground and cannot be directly measured.

The Swiss researchers countered this problem by using a process dubbed zircon geochronology – a method of determining a rock’s age – and thermal modelling.

They analysed the radioactive properties of elements contained within zircon to better understand what is happening under Nevado de Toluca.

Study co-author Gregor Weber from the University of Geneva said: “Zircon is a small crystal found in rocks erupted by volcanoes, and it contains uranium and thorium.

“The decay of these radioactive elements allows us to date when they crystallised. Additionally, zircon crystallises only in a specific temperature range.

“With these two parameters, we can determine how fast the magma is cooling below a volcano.

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“Like a pot of water, the larger the pot, the more time it takes to cool it.”

“We analysed the zircons erupted over the last 1.5 million years by Nevado de Toluca thus determining the evolution of temperature of the magma stored below the volcano over time.

“This information can be converted into a volume of magma using thermal modelling.”

The researchers believe this method produces results with a resolution two times higher than other methods.

Unfortunately, this means Nevado de Toluca could unleash incredible devastation, should it ever erupt.

Dr Weber said: “The system can quickly wake up if the deep magma supply starts again.”

He added: “Knowing the size of a volcanic reservoir is important to identify volcanoes that are most likely to produce a large magnitude eruption in the future.

“Our method is a new way to evaluate the candidates for such eruptions.”

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