The U.S. May Finally Get An Early Warning System For Volcanoes

Mount St. Helens, responsible for the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history. (Photo: Kimon Berlin, Flickr)

America is home to 161 active volcanoes spread across 12 states and two overseas territories. This easily makes it one of the most volcanic places on Earth, which is why it’s deeply strange that the United States doesn’t yet have a nationwide early warning system for its fiery mountains.

A land conservation bill that passed the Senate earlier this month and passed the House on Tuesday has changed that. Sponsored by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Natural Resources Management Act, or S.47, pushes for sweeping changes to how many of America’s natural marvels are managed. The bill has received widespread attention for designating over million new acres of wilderness—but its call for the establishment of the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System (NVEWS) has gone largely unnoticed.

This system would provide the United States Geological Survey (USGS) with the ability to keep an eye on those 161 volcanoes at a level deserving of their threatening natures. NVEWS would “modernise, standardize and stabilise” the USGS’s volcano observatories—the Alaska, California, Cascades, Hawai‘ian and Yellowstone chapters—while making their monitoring networks a single, inter-operative system.

The idea isn’t new. In fact, the USGS has been pushing for NVEWS for around 14 years now.

As Charles Mandeville, the program coordinator for the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, told Earther, NVEWS been stuck in legislative hell ever since it was first proposed. Although NVEWS has been introduced through multiple Congressional delegations—in 2005, 2007, 2012, and 2013—until now there has never been a bill in one chamber that’s been met with a companion bill in the other.

Fortunately, the bill has now passed both the House and Senate with widespread bipartisan support. Democrats backed the broader lands package due to its ream of environmental protections, whereas Republicans enjoyed the increased access private individuals will get to public lands. It seems NVEWS slotted in nicely. Now, assuming the bill is signed into law by the president, the early warning system will finally be authorised.

That’s great news, because the current state of American volcano monitoring is nowhere near adequate. According to the latest National Volcanic Threat Assessment by the USGS, which detailed the hazards posed by the country’s volcanoes, 57 of them present a “high” or “very high” threat to societies, economies, infrastructure and more. Despite this, the USGS is only “somewhere between 30-40 per cent of the way to having an ideal monitoring network for those volcanoes,” Mandeville said.

The coverage of instrumentation, from seismic sensors and GPS stations to gas detectors, varies a lot. There is “a modest amount” of coverage on 88 of the 161 total, according to Mandeville. Alaska, home to a staggering 52 active volcanoes, only has instrumentation for 31 of them. In the Cascades, home to plenty of ominous volcanoes, monitoring equipment is frequently outdated. Only now, for example, is Mount Rainier is getting an upgraded early warning system to warn those living downslope of any incoming lahars, fast-moving concrete-like slurries of mud and volcanic debris.

NVEWS would fill in the gaps, firstly by giving each active volcano the monitoring equipment that it needs, either through upgrades or fresh installation packages.

But it would do more than that. NVEWS would set up a 24-hour volcano watch office to serve the entire country. Even when the individual observatories aren’t in crisis response mode this office would be on call, processing and analysing live data streams from all 161 volcanoes and spotting any worrying signs in advance of an eruption. This would also help to streamline the agency’s cooperation with emergency responders and local government bodies.

Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor at the Institute for Disaster Management of the University of Georgia, told Earther that this seems like it “would improve times for warnings that might require evacuations.” The general public check warnings for things like hurricanes and eruptions during the day already, but this watch office “could provide advanced warnings because there would be someone around the clock watching for changes or indications of activity.”

Integration is a concept that features heavily in NVEWS. Although they still have their own purviews, all the USGS observatories would act as a single organism. By unifying the technological systems that monitor America’s volcanoes, researchers will be able to look through multiple data streams far more efficiently. This would also permit USGS staff, wherever in the world they may be, to remotely access and interpret complex data.

This system serendipitously had a sort of dry run during the Kilauea crisis, as experts from observatories all over the US were shipped in to study the eruption on site. Kilauea may have destroyed 700 homes, but it’s a testament to the USGS’ work and cooperation with local authorities that no-one perished in the monthslong eruption, which was also the most heavily monitored geological event in human history.

NVEWS reaches beyond the USGS’ borders too, by setting up a funding program for universities and institutions. It would provide financial aid to those researching new monitoring techniques, new analytical techniques and systems that would integrate all kinds of volcanological data, from seismic signals to (increased) satellite coverage.

All of this will leave the USGS much better equipped to catch volcanoes in the act of building up to an eruption. Aside from keeping the public safe, it also “puts volcanologists less at risk if we’re not playing catch up with a volcano that’s acting badly and escalating rapidly toward an eruption,” Mandeville said

Mandeville was keen to note that NVEWS would protect the entire country, not just the states with volcanoes. A large-enough eruption on the Pacific coast, he said, would severely disrupt the supply chain of resources coming into the country from that region, creating all kinds of socio-economic turmoil.

“We all saw the damage that even a relatively small eruption can cause with Eyjafjallajökull where the greatest effects were felt far from the volcano,” volcanologist Janine Krippner told Earther, referring to the the Icelandic volcano whose ash cloud closed off European airspace in 2010. “Volcanic activity shouldn’t just be the concern of people who live near them.”

The price tag of NVEWS, according to the bill, is $77 million. In terms of U.S. budget figures, that’s peanuts. As a comparison, military spending for the fiscal year 2019 was $831 billion.

Still, this is just an authorization bill to get NVEWS started. If it’s signed into law, Congress will need to separately appropriate the funds. Even assuming that funds are appropriated, this early warning system won’t be up and running overnight.

“If NVEWS was passed and we got the money tomorrow, it would take 7 to 10 years to close the monitoring gaps on the high threat and very high threat volcanoes,” Mandeville said. At the same time, the USGS has to be adaptable to the appearance of new and unforeseen technological advances.

That’s why the clock is ticking. No-one knows when the next volcanic paroxysm may happen, and without NVEWS fully operational, America will be at a significant disadvantage when it does. Still, as the latest developments have shown, there’s room to be hopeful.

After the Senate bill was passed, and just before the House approved its version, Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and co-founder of educational non-profit Blueprint Earth, told Earther that Kilauea’s eruption should be fresh in the minds of many representatives. She reckoned that this would encourage them to give the USGS what it needs.

“Understanding and monitoring the threats from volcanoes is an essential part of public safety, and we need leaders who recognise that better information leads to better preparation, which equals lives saved,” she said. If they aren’t acknowledging this, then the message to the public is straightforward, she added: “Elect legislators who listen to scientists.”

Finally, after 14 years, it looks like those legislators did.

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