A Kiwi scientist just returned from one of the world's most volcanically active regions says Ecuador's fiery volcanoes could teach us much about our own.

Victoria University's Dr Ian Schipper travelled with six international researchers to the South American Andes, using gear including drones and infrared cameras to research gas emissions from volcanoes.

These gases, or "volatiles", came from the atmosphere and were being constantly recycled back deep into the Earth at subduction zones - where one tectonic plate sinks under another.

Reventador is an active stratovolcano which lies in the Eastern Andes, within Ecuador. Photo / 123RF
Reventador is an active stratovolcano which lies in the Eastern Andes, within Ecuador. Photo / 123RF

"During this process, the sinking plate releases volatiles through the volcanoes - essentially, they drive volcanic eruptions," Schipper said.

Advertisement

"We don't really know how efficiently these volatiles are recycled.

"We don't know what proportion of volatiles are released back into the atmosphere by volcanism and what proportion remains trapped underneath the Earth.

"That's what our study aims to provide - the first accurate and large-scale estimate of volatiles emitted by volcanoes of the South American Andes.

"It will give us a better understanding of how volatile recycling works and the volatile behaviour at each individual volcano.

"And, on a bigger scale, the research will help us understand how our atmosphere formed and is evolving."

Schipper explained that volcanoes all around the Pacific Ring of Fire, including those of South America and those of New Zealand, essentially formed through the same process: subduction of the Pacific oceanic plate.

"Therefore, everything we learned about volatile recycling on one side of the Pacific is directly applicable to processes occurring on the other side."

"Studying the active volcanoes of South America gives insight into similar processes occurring below our feet in the central North Island.

"Also, the high levels of activity at South American volcanoes allows us to hone our gas detection and measurement techniques in a dynamic and challenging environment.

"We can then bring these techniques home to improve our methodologies for monitoring New Zealand's volcanoes."

The researchers, dubbed the Trial-by-Fire team, used state-of-the-art technology to attain its measurements, including infrared cameras, portable isotope spectrometers, and drones, that allowed the researchers to measure hot spots, gas fluxes and compositions on each volcano over short and long distances.

It wasn't always easy.

"Volcanoes are challenging to study, as you're relying on a lot of elements that are out of your control.

"Some volcanoes just didn't want to cooperate with us - even volcanoes with a long history of eruptions, like Tungurahua in Ecuador, had very little activity during our visit.

Cotopaxi, an active volcano in Ecuador, towers over livestock on a nearby hill. Photo /123RF
Cotopaxi, an active volcano in Ecuador, towers over livestock on a nearby hill. Photo /123RF

"We attempted measurements at Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes in the world, a total of 10 times, and only collected a small portion of the data we would've liked.

Bad weather and broken equipment also made for some setbacks - but the expedition was ultimately a rich learning experience for the team.

"Most of the volcanoes we worked on had never been measured before.

"The age of discovery is not over, and it's important for scientists and explorers to persevere, despite the risk of failure."

The team, which is currently processing data collected during the 20,000 kilometre expeditions, is in the planning stages for a third expedition.