29 May 2023

Using AI to help predict volcanic eruptions


Spending summer holidays under the majestic view of the Villarrica Volcano in Southern Chile instilled in Alberto Ardid an interest in wanting to understand the mysteries and unpredictable forces of our natural world.

Yet despite growing up and studying in a country with 43 volcanoes from its tip to its toe, Alberto’s Bachelor of Science and Master's in Geophysics at the University of Chile in Santiago focused on geysers and other geothermal activity. It was not until he arrived in New Zealand to further his studies that he had the opportunity to work with volcanoes.

Several universities around the world competed for Alberto’s geothermal expertise but it was the combination of both the educational and lifestyle opportunities that New Zealand offers that enticed him to our shores in 2016, or geothermal fields and volcanoes, in Alberto’s case.

“I received several offers to continue my studies from various locations world-wide, but it was the offer I received from the University of Auckland’s Geothermal Institute that stood out for me. It is one of the world’s top centres for geothermal research so this and the fact that outside the classroom, I can pursue my adrenalin seeking sports such as surfing, climbing, and hiking, made my decision straight forward in the end.”

Caption: When he’s not studying volcanic data, Alberto enjoys getting out amongst New Zealand’s great outdoors.

Fast forward to 2023 and Alberto has since completed his PhD in Engineering Science at the University of Auckland and is now resident in Ōtautahi Christchurch working as a Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Canterbury. This research focuses on volcano eruption forecasting using seismic data combined with machine learning to train forecasting models. Part of this research has been published in the peer-reviewed international scientific journal, Nature Communications.

Alberto has spent the past two years developing methodologies that study similarities between volcanoes and is now developing a forecasting system that uses data collected from more than 20 active volcanoes around the world, including Whakaari/White Island, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu here in New Zealand. This is being used to help forecast activity in these same volcanoes but also in other volcanoes around the globe that have few eruptions.

“We are training machine learning forecasting models with years of data collected by seismometers in many volcanoes around the world. Our hope is to develop a generalised forecasting tool that can help us anticipate eruptions in any volcano, even volcanoes without seismically recorded eruptions, such as the currently dormant Mount Taranaki.”

“I am working with data from several regions around the world such as Japan, Chile, Iceland, Alaska and other US states, and several countries in Central America, to help these countries understand their own volcanic activity. We hope that this research will improve volcanic alert systems for the millions of people world-wide who live and work around volcanoes,” he added.

Caption: It is hoped that the machine learning system that Alberto is currently working on will eventually help predict activity in other volcanoes such as the currently dormant, Mount Taranaki. Photo credit Saurab Lama.

Alberto is part of a team of researchers, led by David Dempsey, Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury who said that this research was promoted by the tragic 2019 eruption on Whakaari/White Island. He said that having Alberto’s international expertise has been a significant benefit to the team and their research.

“Alberto’s Chilean background has been an enormous asset to our research group given Chile shares similar geothermal settings as New Zealand. He has used this to his full advantage and having him in our team has opened research collaborations with scientists back in his home country. This has been extremely helpful in our research as we have been able to gain access to data sets, we otherwise would never have had.

“Alberto has brought such unique experiences and perspectives to our team and on a personal note is such a warm guy that he has really helped the overall collegiality and atmosphere in our team. He fits right in and has easily made a second family for himself here in New Zealand. We feel very fortunate to have him here,” said David.

Alberto travelled to New Zealand with his partner, Catalina, who trained as an educational psychologist in Chile and followed this up with a Diploma in Education here in New Zealand. She has currently taken time out from her career to look after their one-year-old son but is looking to get back into work in the education or social work sectors next year.

Caption: Alberto with his partner Catalina hiking around Lake Taupo, an enormous volcanic caldera in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island.

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