What I didn't know about the USGS Volcano Hazards Program

Volcano monitoring. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Last night I had the opportunity to see a talk given by YVO Scientist-in-Charge Dr. Jake Lowenstern as part of the Volcanological Society of Sacramento meeting and he gave a great talk on the state of volcano monitoring today in the U.S. He laid out a lot of details concerning the Volcano Hazards Program of the USGS and I thought I'd share some of them so we can all have an idea of the ups and downs of the VHP these days.

First off, nothing says fun like the U.S. Volcano Status Map! Apparently the dreaded watch "eye" was not meant to be a permanent icon, but hey, it has been there for years now, so the "eye" may be here to stay.

The VHP was set up via the Stafford Act to monitoring and mitigation volcanic eruption. Its budget is ~$23 million out of the annual U.S. Federal Budget (so, roughly 0.0012%). This covers the five volcano observatories (Alaska, Cascades, Hawai'i, Long Valley and Yellowstone) along with scientists in the program at the USGS Menlo Park offices.

There are 169 "active" volcanoes in the U.S., at least according to the count down by the VHP, putting the U.S. as the 3rd most volcanically-populated country in the world*. How does a group like the VHP deal with assessing the relative hazard of these volcanoes? Well, in 2005, the USGS released Open File Report 2005-1164, a.k.a. "An Assessment of Volcanic Threat and Monitoring Capabilities in the United States: Framework for a National Volcano Early Warning System" (which you can download from the site linked above). This lists and ranks the "active" volcanoes in the U.S. according to the potential hazards they pose to the country. It also lays the groundwork for the new volcano warning system (NVEWS).

This NVEWS will be the basis for volcano monitoring in the 21st century. It has five parts:
1. A volcano data center
2. 24/7 national volcano watch office
3. increased monitoring
4. extramural grants for research with academia
5. outreach

The nuts and bolts are being worked out right now, but much of the plan is already developed. This goes well with the recently introduced Senate Bill S.782 that calls for an official establishment of a National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System. The bill is being sponsored by Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and was the direct result of (a) Bobby Jindal's infamous "volcano monitoring" comment and (b) the eruption of Redoubt this spring.

Speaking of Bobby Jindal and his comments, where he got $140 million for monitoring in the stimulus is anyone's guess. That is the figure for the whole USGS and monitoring gets $15.2 million of that. Mr. Jindal, may I introduce you to "fact checking". Anyway, roughly half of those ARRA dollars will be going to AVO. One interesting issue with the stimulus money going to monitoring is that there is (a) not enough instruments like seismometers to purchase and (b) many of the seismometers needed, like broadband stations, do not have an American manufacturer. These are just a couple of the problems that have come up as the stimulus money begins to get spent and the rules for its spending are fleshed out.

Finally, I asked Dr. Lowenstern about the places most in need of increased monitoring and (unsurprisingly), the answer was the Cascades, specifically places like Mt. Shasta and Glacier Peak. Ironically, it isn't staff or money that is the biggest problem, but rather the permissions and legal issues that make it difficult. For example, Jake pointed out that Glacier Peak is in a National Wilderness, so that to put up a single seismic station in the Wilderness might take years of negotiating and planning with the U.S. Forest Service to allow the USGS to put one in. The same might be said for other parts of the Cascades where the National Park Services, Bureau of Land Management and Indian nation all control the land where seismic stations would need to be located.

You can begin to get the idea of the difficulties of managing the "volcano monitoring" for a nation as chock full o' volcanoes as the United States. However, with increased funding and the potential of the establishment of the National Volcano Early Warning System, the U.S. is still well in the forefront of monitoring and mitigation for volcanic eruptions.

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I think it would be a good idea for the US to also monitor volcanoes around the world.

What we learn monitoring other volcanoes can help us better understand our own volcanoes.

Volcanoes in other parts of the world can cool the earth. The sun has been quiet for a while and there is some evidence the earth is cooling down. Strong volcanic activity during a cooler than average period could impact worldwide agricultural output like we haven't seen since 1816.

Science needs much better modeling of the deeper earth and its systems if we are to ever be able to predict volcanic eruptions a few years in advance. But will people ever be this enlightened to see this research as a vital goal worth funding?

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 30 Apr 2009 #permalink

It makes me grateful that we have less of some things. But I'm still mad that our bubbling mud stopped when your Mt. St. Helen's erupted in 1980. And hey, I swear that thing made our hot springs cool off, too.

The evil eye is the perfect volcano symbol. I'd swear a marketing agency came up with that one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm totally in favor of wilderness protection regulations and agencies to enforce them.
But the problem with getting permission from various land management agencies is typical of bureacracies. Ironically it is probably easier obtain permission to mine and build roads in wilderness land than it is to setup a low impact seismic stations simply because those activities have enough political and lobbying muscle to overcome the bureacracy.

Did you hear anything about what is done to monitor SW volcanics, such as the San Francisco Field east of Flagstaff.

When South Sister began to "bulge" in 2002, the forest service allowed a seismic and continuous GPS station as well as (non-permanent) probes to monitor discharge of volcanic volatiles from springs. They just needed the proper motivation! Eventually, these volcanoes will start to gurgle and satellite observations, distal seismic stations, and gas measurements should pick that up. And the forest service should come around.

Of course, the waiting game can try the patience!