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Current volcano monitoring has gaps
By Ned Rozell


June 03, 2005

Last July, hundreds of small earthquakes began rattling Mount Spurr a few miles beneath its snowy summit each day. In response, scientists with the Alaska Volcano Observatory flew to its flanks 80 miles due west of Anchorage. They rushed to install five new seismic stations to better record the shaking. They also installed three GPS stations to see if the mountain was inflating like a balloon due to the pressure of molten rock.

"We got lucky Spurr acted up in summer," Tom Murray, scientist-in-charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, said recently. "In winter, with the ground frozen and less light, it would have been difficult to mount such a response."

jpg Alaskan volcano

An Alaska volcano on Semisopochnoi Island in the Aleutians.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory will soon put seismic instruments on the island.
Photo by Ned Rozell

Murray and other volcano-watchers throughout the U.S. dislike the current scrambling it currently takes to outfit the most dangerous of the nation's 169 volcanoes with state of the art instruments. He and researchers at the U.S. volcano observatories have written a report that reveals gaps in the nation's volcano monitoring, many of them in Alaska. Murray said the report outlines the holes, but also maps how the volcano observatories hope to fix the problem.

Mount Spurr hasn't calmed down since it began percolating last summer. It is one of five Alaskan volcanoes of 18 nationwide that pose a "very-high threat" to people and aircraft. Just three of those volcanoes, all located outside of Alaska, now have the proper monitoring equipment, according to Murray and the coauthors of the paper, John Ewert and Marianne Guffanti, of USGS. In the report, the scientists outline the need for new funding and their plans to bring together the nation's five volcano observatories-Alaska, Cascades, Hawaii, Long Valley, and Yellowstone-for instantaneous information sharing. The researchers also envision a round-the-clock observatory for the nation's volcanoes that would be located in Anchorage.

"The need would be greatest up here," Murray said.

Pimpled with about 90 volcanoes, Alaska has more than half of the nation's total. Volcanologists consider Spurr, Augustine, Redoubt, Akutan, and Makushin very high threats for their proximity to Anchorage and well-traveled Aleutian fishing ports and airways. They consider 26 other Alaska volcanoes as high threats, compared to 11 others in the rest of the U.S.-three in California, two in Hawaii, and four each in Oregon and Washington, including Mt. St. Helens.

Right now, scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and Fairbanks look at seismic records twice a day for about 30 volcanoes, and also scan satellite images of volcanoes when they are available. A 24-hour volcano-monitoring center in Anchorage that might employ 10 people would be part of an effort to link all the volcano observatories in the U.S. The center would provide real-time satellite images and seismic and GPS information on Alaska volcanoes to researchers at the other observatories. By sharing information, scientists throughout the country can assist each other during eruptions. Murray can envision an Alaska volcanologist taking the night watch on Mt. St. Helens, for example, by using high-speed Internet connections to gain access to the same seismic, GPS, and satellite information that a scientist in Washington would.

It will take about $15 million a year to monitor America's volcanoes with instruments that would give scientists their best shot at predicting eruptions, Murray said. Most important is to avoid the panic of installing instruments when a volcano is erupting. Often the valuable information on a volcano's character comes after years of observing its tendencies. With years of data, researchers can then better predict a volcano's behavior.

"You need these instruments in the ground ahead of time for them to be most useful," Murray said.

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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