Sunday, March 15, 2009

What is the purpose of volcano monitoring?

In a speech full of criticism for President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal singled out one program for particular scorn. "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington," Jindal said, deriding the $140 million appropriated to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for "something called volcano-monitoring" as one of the most egregious bits of pork to lard up the $787 billion stimulus package. But to those who live under the looming threat of flowing lava, it was a poor punch line. "Does the governor have a volcano in his backyard?" sneered Royce Pollard, the mayor of Vancouver, Wash. Since most of us don't, TIME asked Marianne Guffanti, a senior volcanologist at the USGS, to explain the dangers volcanic eruptions can pose, how to spot them before they happen and why being vigilant can be vital.

Can you explain what you do?
Let me walk you through what's happening at our Alaska volcano observatory, one of five in the country. [The others are in Yellowstone National Park, Washington State, Hawaii, and Long Valley, California.] We have seismic networks and other geophysical equipment monitoring a number of volcanoes in Alaska, including Redoubt Volcano, 100 miles southwest of Anchorage. The volcano is showing a lot of signs of unrest that probably presage an eruption. So we look at seismic data, webcams, radar data and satellite imagery; we make overflights in airplanes to observe; we take gas measurements. We try to pull all this information together to give the public the best practical information we have about what's likely to happen — whether we think it's going to erupt, whether signs of unrest are minor and will diminish — so that people can plan.

How precise can you be with your forecasting?
Once the volcano starts erupting, we get better and better. An eruption is usually episodic — there's some activity, then a pause. The hard part is pinpointing where it first starts up. We use a graduated alert system. Right now, Redoubt Volcano is at orange. At orange, the military might move some planes out of a vulnerable airport. I read that trucking companies are buying ash filters. When it's red, we hope to give them hours of warning.

Can you explain in layman's terms what indicators you're looking for?
The process we're following is the rise of magma from depth to the surface. That gives off signs. One of the most basic is earthquake activity. Magma, as it rises, breaks rock to make room for itself. As the pressure lowers on it, it degases; it's like opening a pop bottle. We pick up the vibrations from the gas and magma. Since the magma has to make space for itself as it rises, the surface of the volcano deforms and we can look for those deformations. Then that gas makes its way out of the ground into the atmosphere, and we can measure it there. At Redoubt, for example, it's melting glacial features. We have to put all of this together and make an estimate.

What may we not be aware of in terms of the hazards posed by volcanoes — both for people living in their shadows or for someone like me who lives thousands of miles away from one?
If you live close to a volcano, you have to be worried about flowing lava, flowing mud. Mudflows can go quite a distance — 100 km — down river valleys. If you live farther away, you're not going to be directly affected by those hazards, but you could very well be affected by the ashfall, which can travel a distance of hundreds of miles. Ash has also erupted with great force into the stratosphere. That's where jets are flying, and encounters between aircraft and ash clouds can be damaging and life-threatening. This ash is not like ash from a fireplace: it's little, pulverized pieces of volcanic glass that can melt in jet engines. The combination has stopped airplane engines midflight. Fortunately we're good at dealing with this hazard now. If you fly from Chicago to Tokyo, there are people watching out for you behind the scenes; you'll never know you diverted around a potential ash cloud.

How will you allocate the $140 million Governor Jindal cited during his speech?
That money is for many other projects besides ours. We will get a very small portion of this money.

So the governor was incorrect?
He was incorrect in ascribing the full amount to volcano-monitoring. [But] what we'll do is use a lot of the money for maintenance and modernization of our monitoring networks. We're trying to play catch-up. In the U.S., there are 169 active volcanoes or volcanoes that are capable of reawakening and 65 historically active volcanoes. In the last 30 years, there have been over 90 eruptions from U.S. volcanoes.

You can't stave off an eruption. How do you measure success and failure?
First, we want to save lives. If there's an evacuation needed, a civil authority will call it, but we want to give them the best information so that people can be moved out of harm's way. The other category is minimizing economic and social disruption during the period of unrest surrounding an eruption. If you've got volcano unrest and you don't know the extent of the eruption, you really tend to overreact when you don't need to. We can also give practical information — telling people about ash flow or when a mudflow is coming down a river valley — that has really high stakes. In 1985, an entire town in Colombia, Armero, was obliterated and [about] 23,000 people were buried alive when a relatively small eruption melted snow and ice on a volcano and sent it rushing down this river valley. Scientists knew the eruption had occurred, but the communications process broke down. People in bed or watching a soccer game were buried alive.

The worst can happen. It usually doesn't, but in large part that's because we have taken seriously these past disasters and tried to learn from them. I sometimes think we're victims of our own success. We have been able to mitigate the adverse affects of volcanoes through science. There have been no crashes of aircraft because we've gotten pretty good at diverting them. The hazard is what it's always been. Our ability to deal with it has improved.

What did you think of Jindal's comments?
Let me just say that my colleagues and I take our job and our mission very seriously. We are always ready and willing to explain what we do and defend what we do, because we believe in what we do. I'll leave it at that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chile: Chaiten volcano displays some activity!

The Andes Mountains along the western coastline of South America include numerous active stratovolcanoes (steep-sided, cone-shaped volcanoes).

Chilean volcanoes (NASA) The majority of these volcanoes were formed and are still fed by magma generated as the Nazca tectonic plate under the southeastern Pacific Ocean moves northeastward and plunges beneath the South American continental plate — a process known as subduction. The line of Andean volcanoes marks the approximate location of the subduction zone.

This astronaut photograph highlights two volcanoes located near the southern boundary of the Nazca–South America subduction zone in southern Chile. Dominating the scene is the massive Minchinmávida Volcano ( upper right). Charles Darwin observed an eruption of this glaciated volcano during his Galapagos Islands voyage in 1834; the last recorded eruption took place the following year. When this photo was taken, the white, snow-covered summit of Minchinmávida was blanketed by gray ash erupted from its much smaller but now-active neighbor to the west, Chaitén Volcano.

Chaitén Volcano is dominated by a large lava dome within a caldera (an emptied and collapsed magma chamber beneath a volcano). With no recorded history of eruptions, Chaitén roared back to life unexpectedly on May 2, 2008, generating dense ash plumes and forcing the evacuation of the nearby town of Chaitén. Volcanic activity continued at Chaitén in early 2009; several days before this astronaut photograph was taken, a new lava dome partially collapsed and generated a pyroclastic flow (a scalding avalanche of gas, ash, and rock debris). A steam and ash plume extended northeast from the eruptive center of the volcano at the time of this image.

(Astronaut photograph ISS018-E-35716 was acquired on February 24, 2009, with a Nikon D2Xs digital camera fitted with a 180 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 18 crew. The image in this article has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast. Lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.)

Volcanic smoke put farmers on hold!

Leafless monkey pod and browning Norfolk pine trees litter Ted Seaman's nursery in the small town of Pahala on the southern edge of Hawaii's largest island.

At fault are the noxious fumes that have been pouring out of the Kilauea volcano in unprecedented volumes since last spring.

"You can only go so far before you say forget it," said Seaman, who has since taken a job trimming trees. The 53-year-old is focused on saving enough money to file for bankruptcy.

Sulfur dioxide from the volcano has wiped out multiple small farms and nurseries in the nearby largely rural district of Kau. The gas, which creates volcanic smog when mixed with sunlight and air, threatens the viability of some flower and vegetable crops.

Roses, sunflowers, protea, lettuce, tomatoes and even medical marijuana are hurt by the smog.

Sulfur dioxide is not new on the Big Island, where Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. But last March, the volcano began releasing two to four times more sulfur dioxide, and a second, simultaneous eruption began at the summit's Halemaumau crater.

Sulfur dioxide volumes have reached levels unseen since scientists began keeping data in 1979.

Claudia McCall's farm, which is tucked into a valley north of Pahala, has slashed production by 75 percent and lost $1 million since the volcanic smog — or vog — started enveloping her plants last spring.

The McCall Flower Farm now only plants limited varieties, like Peruvian lilies, that have withstood the vog. They've also started planting coffee — which seems to grow OK even amid vog — but those trees won't produce their first crop for three years.

The federal and state governments have offered farmers low-interest loans. But many aren't interested in taking on more debt, especially with the vog still blowing in.

Seaman said the federal Farm Service Agency last summer offered to lend him more than $65,000 if he built "vog-proof" greenhouses equipped with air filters. But Seaman said the funds wouldn't have covered all his equipment costs.

"I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't want to put good money after bad," Seaman said. "It didn't make sense."

Farms that purchased federal crop insurance before the disaster have received payments. Many farmers, however, didn't have policies. The federal government is allowing these farmers to retroactively buy insurance, but this program is new and won't come to fruition until late this year.

The state Legislature is considering several bills to help, including a resolution asking the federal government to give grants to vog-damaged farms.

That would come too late for those who have already had to abandon their farms, like protea farmers Frank and Jackie Zumwalt.

Frank Zumwalt has moved to Louisiana to work on a supply ship serving offshore oil rigs. His wife is attending culinary school in Alabama so she can become a cook on board one of the vessels.

They left behind a farm in Ocean View that once grew 3,000 protea plants.

"The vog came down and settled," said Jackie Zumwalt. "It was almost like a Stephen King movie, 'The Mist,' because you couldn't see, you could hardly see your driveway."

Their former neighbor, Connie Stanton, is deserting Hawaii for Alaska in March to reclaim her old job running a weather station.

Other farmers say they may have to give up, too.

"People have gone, they've just abandoned their farms," said Tony Bayaoa. "If I don't get help, our farm is gone."

Not all growers are suffering, however.

Some native plants, especially ohia trees, appear to have evolved to resist the effects of sulfur dioxide.

Zoe Thorne, who has a native plant nursery just east of Kilauea, has been inundated by heavy vog several times. One of her few nonnative plants, a gunnera, looks like someone sprinkled acid on its leaves.

But her ohia trees show off brightly red and yellow blossoms and host several loudly singing birds. Her mamane, a plant favored by the endangered palila bird, have a healthy green hue. Same with her koa, the tree that grows Hawaii's favorite wood.

"They seem to have evolved with it," Thorne said. "They've show no sign at all."

But not all native plants have these talents.

Kelvin Sewake, an extension agent with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture, has documented cases of koa, naio, and uki — all native species — that have suffered heavy vog damage.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Alaska: Level of alert raised to yellow

Indonesia: Volcanic eruption

THE tallest volcano on Indonesia's Java island erupted on Friday, spewing smoke and ash high into the sky and coating a nearby town in black dust, an official said.

The 3,676-metre Mount Semeru burst into life shortly after midnight but officials said it posed no danger to people living in the area, 35 kilometres southeast of Lumajang.

'We recorded that it erupted after midnight on Friday but luckily we have had rains so the ash isn't causing serious respiration problems for the residents,' volcanologist Agus Budianto told AFP.

Winds had also helped to carry the harmful debris away from the most populated areas nearby, he said.

Mr Budianto said there had been no evacuation order but authorities were monitoring the eruption closely for signs of lethal heat clouds.

The Indonesian archipelago sits on the seismically active Pacific 'Ring of Fire' where continental plates collide, and is home to about 130 active volcanoes.

Bobby Jindal puts down the necessity of "volcano monitoring" in Alaska!

In his official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said repeatedly that "Americans can do anything!"

With one exception apparently. We don’t need to keep an eye on simmering volcanoes.

Jindal singled out "volcano monitoring" in Alaska as an unnecessary frill that Democrats stuck in the recently adopted stimulus package.

"Their legislation is larded with wasteful spending," Jindal said. "It includes ... $140 million for something called ’volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington D.C."

Jindal’s comments provoked an eruption of their own. Alaska politicians, liberal bloggers and some scientists began pointing out how useful it is to let people know when a volcano in their neighborhood is about to explode.

"Volcano monitoring is a matter of life and death in Alaska," Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in an open letter to Jindal.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, quickly agreed, noting in a press statement how "absolutely appropriate" it is to spend money on volcano monitoring. However, said Murkowski, Jindal raised "a legitimate question about funding volcano monitoring in legislation that’s supposed to create jobs for unemployed Americans."

Jindal appears to have exaggerated by tenfold the $140 million he said was destined for the nation’s volcano observatories.

Nearly all of that amount - included in the stimulus bill for funding U.S. Geological Survey projects - will go to other USGS functions nationwide, such as repairing facilities and mapping, said John Eichelberger, who heads the agency’s Volcano Hazards Program in Reston, Va.

Only about $14 million will be spent on "monitoring volcanoes," mostly in Alaska, he said.

The USGS also staffs volcano observatories in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, but most of the nation’s active volcanoes - and most of the yearly eruptions - occur in Alaska, said Eichelberger, who once worked at the Alaska Volcano Observatory while a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"It was a strange thing for (Jindal) to pick up on," he said. "This is really very important work. We can see these eruptions coming, so it saves lives to be able to warn people."

Several online commentators, such as New York Times [NYT] columnist Paul Krugman, questioned why the governor of a state that depends so much on federally funded hurricane watching would criticize spending federal dollars to safeguard other Americans against volcano eruptions. "The intellectual incoherence is stunning," Krugman wrote.

Multiple requests for a response from Jindal himself via phone calls to the governor’s office in Baton Rouge were not returned Tuesday.

A request for a comment from Gov. Sarah Palin - also considered a future GOP presidential contender - wasn’t forthcoming either. But Palin press secretary Bill McAllister said: "Of course Alaskans want to know if a volcano is going to blow."

Begich said volcano monitoring also safeguards national economic interests, since Anchorage - bordered by four active Cook Inlet volcanoes - is one of the busiest cargo airports in the world.

"Any interruptions of that traffic by a volcanic eruption could be felt in Tokyo, New York or even Baton Rouge," Begich said.

The Web site "Live Science" noted that volcano monitoring by USGS scientists probably saved thousands of lives, including those of U.S. servicemen, during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines.

Closer to home, the Alaska Volcano Observatory on Tuesday was watching Mount Redoubt, located 100 miles south of Anchorage, which has been rumbling for more than a month and is expected to blow.

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