A UK-led team of scientists is launching a project to monitor every land volcano on Earth from space.
Two satellites will routinely map the planet’s surface, looking for signs that might hint at a future eruption.
They will watch for changes in the shape of the ground below them, enabling scientists to issue an early alert if a volcano appears restless.
Some 1,500 volcanoes worldwide are thought to be potentially active, but only a few dozen are heavily monitored.
Before a volcano erupts, magma rises from beneath the Earth, causing the ground above to swell. It may be barely noticeable to the eye, but it can be seen from space.
Regular satellite data recording this change will be processed automatically and an alert issued for scientists to follow up.
Professor Andy Hooper of Leeds University said: “It’s the volcanoes that are least monitored where this will have most impact. If people can be alerted ahead of time, it could save many lives.”
Hooper is part of the Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET).
COMET has conducted trials of the new satellite-monitoring system in Iceland and is now running it in prototype form across Europe and parts of Asia.
The next stage in the plan is to extend the system to Africa and Central and South America.
COMET team member Dr Juliet Biggs from Bristol University said: “In Ecuador, for example, there are roughly 80 volcanoes, four of which are erupting at any one time, and a very small staff to keep an eye on it all. So, they will be grateful of the assistance.”
The aim is to have the satellite data on all 1,500 volcanoes gathered and processed by the end of 2017.