Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Volcano warning system wanted

Majority of the 13 Northern Marianas volcanoes have no real-time, ground-based monitoring at all, despite the U.S. Geological Survey's assessment that at least four of them pose high threat to aviation and ground safety.

The USGS has listed eight CNMI volcanoes as high priority targets for monitoring improvement.Among the four volcanoes that are considered as high threat, the government only has ground-based monitoring capability on Anatahan, where the only functional seismic station recently bogged down, necessitating repair work.

But the Emergency Management Office said it has restored monitoring on that island.The three other high-threat volcanoes in Pagan, Alamagan, and Agrigan have zero real-time, ground-based monitoring. Based on required monitoring level for high-threat volcanoes, about 12 to 20 stations should be installed within 20 kilometers of the volcano's vent, among other sensors. "With no real-time ground sensors at a volcano, timely evidence of a volcano's precursory unrest will be lacking.

Depending on the remoteness of the volcano, even eruption reports may be delayed, as was the case with the surprise eruption in 2003 of Anatahan volcano in the Mariana Islands," the USGS said."Hours elapsed from the eruption's onset to the issuance of the first warning to aviation of ash in the atmosphere; luckily, no damaging encounters of aircraft occurred during that dangerous period," it added.The USGS recently released a report that documented an assessment of volcanic threat and monitoring capabilities in the United States, as it recommended the implementation of a National Volcano Early Warning System.

The report reviews the hazard of 169 volcanoes in the U.S. and its territories and calls for a 24-hour, seven-day Volcano Watch Office and increased monitoring at many of the peaks.The USGS classified four other volcanoes in Asuncion, Farallon de Pajaros, Guguan, and Sarigan as moderate threat, a classification that requires a monitoring network of three to four near-field stations and at least six within the 20-km vent.

None of those volcanoes have real-time ground-based monitoring, except for that in Sarigan, which is currently inadequate.Five other volcanoes in the CNMI fall under low or very low threat classifications, which require limited or minimal monitoring. The volcanoes in Maug, Ahyi and Supply Reef have zero ground-based monitoring capability. Monitoring of volcanoes in Esmeralda Bank and Ruby needs improvement.

The USGS said Anatahan should be one of the federal government's highest priority targets for monitoring improvement, besides four other erupting volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens in Washington. Other high priority targets include Pagan, Agrigan, Alamagan, Guguan, Farallon de Pajaros, and Asuncion. The USGS also considers Sarigan as high priority target.The EMO has been clamoring for the conduct of a volcano hazard assessment and the installation of early warning devices in the CNMI. An early warning system would help the CNMI government predict when volcanic eruptions might erupt months before they happen, noted EMO director Rudolfo Pua.According to James E. Quick, PhD, a veteran igneous petrologist and program coordinator of the USGS' Volcano Hazards Program, monitoring the nine active volcanoes in the Northern Marianas and assessing their hazards would cost about $1.9 million per year for the first three years, $1.2 million in the fourth year, and approximately $500,000 per year eventually.

The USGS' Volcano Hazards Program, however, has no funds for the plan. With the help of Quick, the CNMI government has been working on obtaining federal appropriation to implement the plan.Quick said the islands' volcanoes pose great risk to air traffic as over 1 million commercial flights pass through CNMI airpspace annually.

Volcanic ash threatens aircraft, as it forms deposit in engines, restricts airflow, and clogs fuel nozzles. Minute particles of volcanic ash also contaminate aircraft's ventilation, lubrication, hydraulic and electronic systems. They cause erosion and pitting of leading edges of windshields and landing lights, as well as erosion of compressor blades.

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