Thursday, May 19, 2005
Could retirement of a famous volcanologist slow down the study a volcano?
Charlie Crisafulli sets out frog traps near Mount St. Helens. The ecologist says key scientists studying the area are close to the end of their careers.
On her way, she saw a small group of junior, temporary contract scientists gathered in a room near the training area. Poking in her head, she gently admonished them, saying that as the only young people on staff, they better attend the training. It likely would be one of them, she said, who would save her or some other staff "geezer" in the event of a cardiac arrest.
With hardly a pause, newly minted Ph.D. Mike Poland shot back: "But we need you to die. We want those jobs."
Gardner laughed as she told the story, but it underscored a serious point: In recent years, budget restrictions have suspended nearly all of the hiring of scientists at the observatory, making the research center heavily dependent on Gardner and her colleagues who arrived in the aftermath of Mount St. Helens' major eruptions 25 years ago.
And while those first-generation geologists built the observatory's volcanology into international prominence, many of them now are drifting toward retirement -- 66 percent of the staff will be eligible to retire by 2010, according to USGS records.
This has placed the observatory on the cusp of losing much brainpower with no ready pipeline of junior scientists in reserve. When he left Vancouver three months ago, Poland was the last staff scientist at the observatory still in his 20s. Currently, only one permanent scientist there is in his 30s.
"When I was at the CVO, I'm guessing the average age (of scientists) was in the 50s," said Poland, who did manage to land a rare permanent job with the USGS -- but in the Hawaii volcano observatory. "They weren't hiring. They couldn't. I was really lucky to get this job."
Poland was correct in his estimate. The average age of Cascades Volcano Observatory scientists is 53, according to a staff survey. Gardner, 49, said it will prove to be a problem if not corrected.
"When I arrived here in 1987, the roster here was close to 100 people," said Gardner, who now is the "scientist in charge" at the observatory. "Now it's half that, about 53 people. More importantly, we're losing senior staff and we're not able to replace them."
The issue of an aging staff isn't confined to the observatory or even the USGS. The U.S. Forest Service also has begun to lose its senior St. Helens scientists. "Many of the people who arrived here (after St. Helens erupted) were midcareer," said Charlie Crisafulli, a research ecologist with the service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, based in Portland. "So those people now are in the waning years of their careers.
"The question is what's being done to bring in their replacements? It's a concern."
According to federal demographic studies, the concern extends to the entire federal government: 70 percent of the work force will be eligible for retirement in five years. With government science jobs, such as the within the USGS, the problem is acute, Gardner said.
"We're starting to lose considerable, specific expertise," Gardner said. "You can't just hire in people to replace staff in some of these jobs. You need to train people."
Professionally, geologists see natural history in great, sprawling chunks, in years bundled by the thousands, tens of thousands and millions. Two and a half decades -- the period since the eruption -- in most cases is inconsequential geologically, a teaspoon skimmed from time's ocean.
But when it's a career, not a basalt deposit, the 25 years loom large. Not that long ago, St. Helens remained quiet, regarded as more mountain than volcano with its inner active life not yet revealed. Not a single government scientist was assigned to study it regularly.
Then in March 1980, it began to vent steam and ash, sending dark smoke 17,000 feet in the air.
Volcano scientists from Hawaii, Menlo Park, Calif., and Denver rushed in, setting up temporary offices in nearby Vancouver. Before St. Helens catastrophically blew its top 25 years ago today, sloughing off its north side and triggering a series of events that resulted in the death of 57 people, the two dozen USGS scientists on hand helped forecast the likelihood of the eruption. Much of this group stayed on to found the nation's second permanent volcano observatory.
A budget that started at $1 million following that first year swelled to $20 million by the mid-1990s, according to observatory records. Since then, the budget mostly has been static. "We can't do a one-for-one replacement anymore," Gardner said. "That's the problem we're dealing with now."
John Ewert, 44, is one of those first-generation geologists. He arrived as an undergraduate college student at the volcano in December 1980. A year earlier there had been no full-time geologist at the mountain. Now there were dozens.
"When I came in," the volcanologist said, "I did a lot of different jobs. I had lot of on-the-job training, from gas measurements to surveying the crater and river channels. It was incredible."
Many of the first scientists at the observatory had similar experiences. The study of volcanoes was nothing new, but many U.S. volcano geologists had never seen an eruption except in Hawaii.
The issue isn't a small one: Volcanology remains among the most observational of sciences. The people who study volcanoes say one adage remains true: To find the best volcanologist, find the one who has watched the most eruptions. In the years after the St. Helens eruption, understanding of volcanoes and their hazards, particularly the explosive type that make up the Cascade Range, advanced dramatically.
"For the science of volcanology, St. Helens was a watershed," Ewert said. "We learned a tremendous amount about the spread of ash and the nature of those explosive volcanoes."
Crisafulli agreed. "More papers were published on Mount St. Helens than any other natural disturbance in the world. It's the poster child."
Poland said much of what he studied at Arizona State University was based on research pioneered at the Cascades Volcano Observatory. Moreover, he said, when he got his chance to work at the center, it allowed him to work alongside the scientists who did much of the groundbreaking work.
Not every young scientist, Poland observed, gets to work alongside the people who fundamentally moved their field forward.
"I learned more in my time there than in all of my time at school," he said. "You can't teach this stuff. You have to go watch it for yourself.
"I learned a tremendous amount just being around them. They brought up things I hadn't heard of."
But attrition is taking its toll. The departure of volcano luminaries such as Dan Miller (retired in January but still has an office at the Cascades observatory) and Chris Newhall (retiring next August), among others, is imminent. Their protégés, staff members in their 40s such as Gardner and Ewert, won't have protégés of their own -- unless something changes soon.
"A breadth and depth of knowledge is retiring out of the survey and there are few people around to benefit from their knowledge," Ewert said. "It creates a tremendous amount of pressure on us to keep that knowledge alive."