at Work
Calculating What Makes Volcanoes Blow
By Simon Morrow

As a young chemical engineer in Italy, a country riddled with active volcanoes, Augusto Neri (Ph.D. CHE ’98) was offered the opportunity to work with Franco Barberi, a leading Italian volcanologist and family friend, to calculate the hazard of volcanic eruptions with new and innovative methods. Now Neri is a leading volcanologist in his own right, carrying on the work of simulating volcanoes that has proven critical to the field.

Neri climbed his first volcano, Mount Vesuvius, in high school, which he’s now gone on to study as a researcher.

“It is always a great emotion to look at it in the background of the city of Naples. And, also a main concern,” he says.

With the 2021 eruption of La Soufrière on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, the importance of assessing volcanic risk is starkly clear. While a similar eruption in 1902 caused about 1,600 fatalities, in 2021 the advanced detection of seismic activity and slow growth of the volcanic dome allowed more than 16,000 people to evacuate early enough that there were no fatalities.

“Such difference reflects per se the major progress made by volcanology in the last century,” says Neri.

Learn what one Illinois Institute of Technology alumnus is doing to uncover the mysteries inside volcanoes.

WHO: Augusto Neri, director of the Volcanoes Department, Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Italy

WHAT HE DOES: Neri develops numerical simulation models to describe the dynamics of explosive volcano eruptions and applies those models to real-life risk assessments.

WHY HE CAME TO ILLINOIS TECH: He was impressed by Illinois Tech Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dimitri Gidaspow’s pioneering methods for modeling multiphase fluids. “At Illinois Tech I was particularly attracted to the possibility to develop new modeling codes and, at the same time, to test and validate them through laboratory experiments,” says Neri.

Augusto at INGV Headquarters in Rome (Italy, 2019)
Augusto in Island (2015)

NOTABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Neri has been among the trailblazers who have shown the volcanology community that computational work is applicable and useful to the field, helping unfold complex volcano processes that are difficult to understand just from observation.

He has also assisted in volcanic emergencies including the eruption of Mount Etna from 1991 to 1993. “This is a quite famous event due to the successful attempt to stop the propagation of some lava flows that were directly threatening a nearby town,” says Neri. “I was very impressed at that time by the power of the phenomenon but also by the intelligence and audacity of volcanologists.”

“Augusto masterminded the ambitious EXPLORIS project on Vesuvius and three other European volcanoes, which he very successfully led and managed across multidisciplinary research groups in all four countries,” says Peter Baxter, research fellow at the University of Cambridge who works on the public health considerations related to natural disasters. The EXPLORIS project developed state-of-the-art numerical simulations and probabilistic risk procedures for eruptions. “It was unprecedented in volcanic-disaster risk reduction, advancing eruption scenario planning and probabilistic decision making in future crises at all four volcanoes,” he says.

In 2020 Neri became an American Geophysical Union fellow and was honored with the organization’s Gilbert F. White Distinguished Award and Lecture.

Numerical simulation output at Vesuvius for column collapse in a sub-Plinian eruption scenario. Colors represent isosurfaces of pyroclastic mixture temperature corresponding to 100 °C (light pink) and 350 °C (orange), 700 s after the beginning of the simulation.

GREATEST CHALLENGE: “For many volcanoes of the world, although some exceptions exist, it is possible to have a quite good idea of where a volcanic crater could form and when this could happen, although the anticipation time is often only of the order of just a few hours or days; vice versa, it is much more difficult to predict the scale and type of the upcoming eruption based on the knowledge of the data recorded by the monitoring networks,” Neri says. “So right now, emergency plans for eruptions foresee the evacuation, in some cases as Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei in Italy, of up to several hundred thousand people based on statistical or precautionary approaches.”

WHAT’S NEXT: As he continues the work of making numerical models of volcanoes more realistic and testing those models against data, Neri says he’s especially interested in further developing the process for determining risk assessment based on the modeling results.

“This is a very complex goal that requires a strongly quantitative and multidisciplinary effort. As current director of the Volcanoes Department of Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, I am trying to promote such developments through new research projects and innovative operational tools able to contribute to the mitigation of volcanic risk in Italy and abroad,” he says.