Of the United States’ 161 active volcanoes, 57 are under-monitored, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, creating blind spots that pose a huge potential threat to public safety.
In 2009, Washington allocated funds to improve the monitoring systems, but the money quickly ran out, and recent spending initiatives never went anywhere.
Dr. Seth Moran is the lead scientist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, which monitors volcanic activity in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
A properly monitored volcano has between 12 and 20 scientific instruments on the ground, Moran said. But Glacier Peak, a snow-capped volcano 70 miles northeast of Seattle that’s classified by the U.S. Geological Survey as a “very high threat,” has one.
There are 28 under-monitored volcanoes in Alaska, seven in California, and five in Washington state. In the United States, five volcanoes erupted in 2018 and three volcanoes erupted in 2017.
Overhauling the current volcano monitoring infrastructure will require at least $50 million from the federal government and could take a decade to implement, according to Dr. Charles Mandeville, coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Congress recently took its first step toward addressing the problem. Last month, lawmakers voted to authorize the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System, which was included in a massive public lands bill.
There are currently five volcano observatories across the country that are responsible for monitoring and warning the public about volcanic activity: The Alaska Volcano Observatory, California Volcano Observatory, Cascades Volcano Observatory, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
The observatories lack the funding necessary to properly monitor each volcano and watch incoming data around the clock, according to Moran.
The National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System would modernize and standardize the tools at all of the observatories. It also would enhance coordination between the observatories by creating a national volcano data center and a national volcano watch office that operates around the clock.
The National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System also creates a federal advisory board and a research grant program for volcano science.
The U.S. Geological Survey first proposed the system in 2005. Since then, lawmakers have been slow to put it into effect. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, said, “It has been on the priority list, but just couldn’t move through the process without a larger (legislative) vehicle. We don’t want to do it that way, but basically what happens is other people who have priorities hold up your bills.”
Last year, similar legislation supported by Cantwell and Sens. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, and Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, passed in the Senate. But the Republican-controlled House never scheduled it for a vote.
President Donald Trump signed the public lands bill earlier this week.
In the past decade, scientists have developed the technology to not only detect eruptions, but also forecast them. “Volcanoes do things before they erupt, typically, but you’ve got to have ground-based instruments on the volcano to actually record these precursors to an eruption,” Mandeville said.
Extremely sensitive seismometers can record minor earthquakes that increase in frequency before an eruption, and drones carrying sensors can measure changes in gas emissions from the volcano.
If volcanoes are equipped with this technology, then scientists can identify the warning signs of an eruption sooner, which gives emergency responders more time.
Mandeville explained that the Mt. Kilauea eruption in 2018 in Hawaii demonstrated how the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System could help save lives. Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were able to identify the warning signs of an eruption in time to evacuate the surrounding areas. The eruption destroyed more than 700 homes, but there were no deaths.
“A lot of the instrumentation that we would like to put on more of our volcanoes already existed at Mt. Kilauea,” Mandeville said. “It illustrates what can be done to safeguard people when you’ve got the proper instrumentation in place.”
After the public lands bill gets Trump’s signature, the U.S. Geological Survey will create a plan to implement the newly authorized National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System. The next step will be for Congress to approve the funds it requests.
Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that she’ll work to get full and lasting funding for the National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System, which she has championed for years.
“We’re going to make sure that it is not only a part of this next year’s appropriation, but that we’ve got support going forward,” she said.