Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980
Step aside, crystal balls—another kind of crystal could help scientists forecast eruptions. The structure of microscopic crystals in lava oozing out of volcanoes give clues into when and how a volcano will erupt, according to a study on Mount St. Helens just published in Science.
For six years after Mount St. Helens infamously blew its top in 1980, the volcano in Washington continued to spew and sputter, erupting periodically. Each eruption brought more magma to the surface, and crystals embedded in the magma are snapshots of what happened inside the volcano just before each eruption. They contain concentric circles of elements like iron and magnesium, just like tree rings. Volcanologists examined over 300 of these crystals from Mount St. Helens, each no more than 1/10 of a millimeter in size.
The Eastern Seaboard is warily watching the progress of Hurricane Irene, wondering what course the storm will take and just how ferocious it will be. Predicting the path of a hurricane still involves some guesswork—but thanks to rapidly improving computer models and data-gathering abilities, Tekla Perry reports in IEEE Spectrum, scientists are able to make more accurate forecasts farther in advance than they were even five or ten years ago. In fact, the predicted track of a hurricane over the next 48 hours today is as accurate as a prediction for the next 24 hours was 10 years ago—a day that can make a big difference for people deciding whether to evacuate and how to prepare before the storm. Boosts in computing power mean scientists can run more, faster, and more detailed simulations of the storm, and technologies like Dopper radar provide detailed data on wind speed, air pressure, and temperature as storms progress.