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Volcano experts worry about data gap

For lack of funds, more than a third of the nation's "truly dangerous" volcanoes lack even a seismometer for detecting signs of an impending eruption, scientists say.
Mount St. Helens Eruption Watch Continues
Steam vents from behind the old dome of Mount St. Helens on the volcano's north side.Greg Wahl-stephens / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

For lack of funds, more than a third of the nation's "truly dangerous" volcanoes lack even a seismometer for detecting signs of an impending eruption, scientists say.

Mount St. Helens, where lava began oozing into the crater this month after a few steam bursts, is one of the dozens of volcanoes monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.

Even at St. Helens, the most active volcano in the lower 48 states over the past 4,500 years and the most thoroughly wired mountain in the Cascade Range, scientists have scrambled to install equipment, recharge batteries and repair damaged gear.

"We think it's serious," said Jim Quick, director of the USGS volcano hazards program in Reston, Va., told The Columbian of Vancouver.

"The problem is you're playing catch-up on the volcano then," Quick said. "You've greatly shortened the response time the community has to react. You're also putting my people at risk."

Cost vs. benefit
Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., whose district includes St. Helens, says the payoff in public safety would be well worth the cost.

"It's not just abstract intellectual data collection," Baird said. "This is about predicting an event that could cost a number of lives if we don't predict accurately."

According to the Smithsonian Institution, 172 U.S. volcanoes have been active within the past 10,000 years, and many have erupted within the past 200 years, sometimes repeatedly, Quick said.

"About 70, we feel, are truly dangerous volcanoes, which means they would pose a threat to people or property on the ground or aircraft in the air," Quick said.

Concern for air routes
The 25 without any monitoring equipment are in remote areas of Alaska and the U.S.-affiliated Mariana Islands in the South Pacific, posing little threat to buildings or people on the ground but sitting below major airline flight paths, he said.

Gritty volcanic ash can clog aircraft engines. On Dec. 15, 1989, a jumbo jet nearly crashed after all four engines stalled as it passed through what looked like a normal cloud over Mount Redoubt in Alaska.

The silica-rich ash melted, then solidified inside the engine compartments. The flight crew managed to restart the engines and landed in Anchorage.

"The more you have monitored, the less the chance of that bad case of a pilot ending up in a (volcanic) cloud without realizing it," said Steve Malone, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.

"It's this balancing act," Malone said. "You're working on a combination of being good and being lucky. If you have instruments by chance or design where problems occur, then you can look good. If something takes place where you don't have any monitoring equipment at all, then problems can escalate very quickly."

A million here, a million there
The volcano hazard program includes five observatories, employs about 130 people and was last budgeted at $19.7 million. President Bush has proposed $18.5 million for the next fiscal year, and "we hope to offer a few million into that," Baird said.

He said the money at stake represents "almost rounding errors" in the total $2.4 trillion federal budget.

Installing equipment and assigning staff to each unmonitored volcano would cost about $1 million to $2 million, more than doubling the volcano hazard program's annual budget, Quick said.

Another $1 million to $2 million each would be needed to fully wire all 12 of the principal Cascade volcanoes, some of which now have only one quake detector, Quick said.

In Washington state, for example, solo-seismometer volcanoes include Glacier Peak, which exploded as recently as the 18th century; and Mount Baker, which released steam in the mid-1970s.

"The Cascade volcanoes should be monitored more heavily because of their proximity to population," Quick said.

Upgrade in stages
He said it would be more logical to bolster the monitoring network in stages, starting with the most hazardous volcanoes, because USGS lacks the staff to install all the gear at once.

"Even if [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates gave us all that money tomorrow, we couldn't do it," Quick said.

Monitoring volcanoes is different from recording tectonic earthquakes, which occur along fault lines and usually are intense enough to be detected by seismometers many miles away.

At St. Helens, scientists detected a swarm of thousands of earthquakes as magma began pushing upward last month, but practically none of the tremors was strong enough to be felt at the surface, even on the crater floor.

"Ideally, every volcano should have a fairly dense array of seismometers," Quick said.