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Volcanic volatile emissions provide information about volcanic unrest but are difficult to detect with satellites. Volcanic degassing affects plants by elevating local CO2 and H2O concentrations, which may increase photosynthesis. Satellites can detect plant health, or a reaction to photosynthesis, through a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). This can act as a potential proxy for detecting changes in volcanic volatile emissions from space. We tested this method by analyzing 185 Landsat 5 and 8 images of the Tern Lake thermal area (TLTA) in northeast Yellowstone caldera from 1984 to 2022. We compared the NDVI values of the thermal area with those of similar nearby forests that were unaffected by hydrothermal activity to determine how hydrothermal activity impacted the vegetation. From 1984 to 2000, plant health in the TLTA steadily increased relative to the background forests, suggesting that vegetation in the TLTA was fertilized by volcanic CO2 and/or magmatic water. Hydrothermal activity began to stress plants in 2002, and by 2006, large swathes of trees were dying in the hydrothermal area. Throughout most of the 1990s, the least healthy plants were located in the area which became the epicenter of hydrothermal activity in 2000. These findings suggest that plant-focused measurements are sensitive to minor levels of volcanic unrest which may not be detected by other remote sensing methods, such as infrared temperature measurements. This method could be a safe and effective new tool for detecting changes in volatile emissions in volcanic environments which are dangerous or difficult to access.


This article was originally published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, volume 24, in 2024.


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