12 May 2010

Even quiet volcanoes need watching

Posted by Michael McFadden

The logistical nightmare that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul caused recently in Europe—thousands of travelers stranded for days as airlines lost well over $1 billion—dramatically reminded the world that volcanic hazards remain a global reality, one that might need more attention than it has been getting, according to some experts.

For volcano hazards specialist Tom Murray, the surprise turmoil brought to mind a much harsher volcano story—the more than 20,000 deaths that resulted because of a lack of hazard warnings when Nevado del Ruiz erupted in Colombia in 1985. Speaking to a recent Congressional briefing co-sponsored by AGU, Murray recalled the Colombia disaster and argued that volcano monitoring is needed now more than ever as populations increase worldwide.

Warnings can make a huge difference, noted Murray, the Volcano Hazards Program Coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey. For instance, because of warnings issued before the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, tens of thousands of lives were saved.

But federal funding for US volcano monitoring has decreased in recent years, said Christopher Nye of the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, another member of the briefing’s panel. That means that Alaska can currently only monitor about half of the active volcanoes in its state—a scary thought considering that the Anchorage, Alaska airport ranks fifth in the world for cargo weight passing through its runways each year.

Congress is currently considering a volcano monitoring and early warning system bill, which would create a single connected U.S. monitoring system, running 24 hours a day (more information on the  House and Senate bills online). AGU cosponsored the 21 April briefing with the American Geological Institute, the Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists, and the Geological Society of America to provide information to lawmakers about volcano hazards.

In Clackamas County, Oregon, officials are keenly aware of the need for volcano monitoring. Although huge numbers of tourists and residents visit the county’s Mount Hood for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, they may not even know that they are spending time on the slopes of an active volcano, Jay Wilson, the county’s Hazards Mitigation Coordinator told the briefing. Whenever you are living in an area prone to natural disasters, whether they are hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanoes, it’s crucial to understand the potential dangers and be prepared, he said. Besides providing its own volcano monitoring, the county is working to ensure that both residents and tourists can be properly notified in the event of an emergency.

With Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano still spewing ash as he spoke, Leonard J. Salinas of United Airlines flight dispatch related to the briefing some of major concerns of flight dispatchers in such a situation—in particular, their lack of direct access to volcanic experts and their need for specific forecasts of impending volcanic activity. Salinas said he would like to see closer work between air carriers, volcano observatories, and volcanic ash advisory centers.

Elizabeth Landau, AGU Public Affairs Manager