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Volcano 'music' could help scientists monitor eruptions

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Views of the top of Cotopaxi’s long, cylindrical crater. After a sequence of eruptions in 2015, the crater floor dropped out of sight. Views of the top of Cotopaxi’s long, cylindrical crater. After a sequence of eruptions in 2015, the crater floor dropped out of sight.

With volcanoes in Hawaii and Guatemala causing such widespread destruction, here's some cool, less violent news about these geological monsters.

Scientists say that a volcano in Ecuador could be the largest musical instrument on Earth, one that emits unique sounds scientists could use to monitor its activity.

"It's the largest organ pipe you've ever come across,' said Jeff Johnson, a volcanologist at Boise State University and lead author of a new study about the volcano sounds.

The volcano in question is Cotopaxi, one of the world's tallest volcanoes, which is located some 30 miles from Quito. The sounds in the study were recorded in 2015 and 2016.

Johnson likens the sound to the "old Western bar door' that once opened, swings back and forth several times before coming to rest.

The sound is like that made by a pipe organ, where pressurized air is forced through metal pipes. "It's a beautiful signal and amazing that the natural world is able to produce this type of oscillation,' he said.

The new study said the geometry of a volcano's crater has a major impact on the sounds a volcano can produce. "Understanding how each volcano speaks is vital to understanding what's going on,' Johnson said.

Listening to the sounds could also help alert scientists to changes going on inside the volcano that might signal an impending eruption, according to the study.

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, which has belched lava and ash for weeks now, could also be monitored for the sounds it makes, according to David Fee, a volcanologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was not connected to the new study.

Listening to Kilauea could help scientists monitor the magma depth from afar and forecast its potential eruptive hazards, he said. When magma levels at Kilauea's summit drop, the magma can heat groundwater and cause explosive eruptions, which is what scientists think has happened at Kilauea over the past several weeks. This can also change the sound emitted by the volcano, Lee said.

The researchers dubbed the sounds tornillos, the Spanish word for screws, because on the monitors, the sound waves looked like screw threads.

The study appeared in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

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