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All posts for the day March 23rd, 2009

Why We Monitor Volcanoes

Mount Redoubts top vent emitting a cloud of steam, prior to an ash eruption overnight. Image courtesy AVO/USGS and Cyrus Read. Click to embiggen.

Mount Redoubt's top vent emitting a cloud of steam, prior to an ash eruption overnight. Image courtesy AVO/USGS and Cyrus Read. Click to embiggen.

From the National Weather Service in Anchorage, AK:

..ASHFALL ADVISORY NOW IN EFFECT UNTIL 8 AM AKDT THIS MORNING...

THE ASHFALL ADVISORY IS NOW IN EFFECT UNTIL 8 AM AKDT THIS
MORNING. 

REDOUBT VOLCANO AT 60.5N 152.7W HAS ERUPTED SEVERAL TIMES DURING
THE NIGHT. LIGHT ASHFALL HAS ALREADY BEEN REPORTED AT SKWENTNA.
LIGHT ASHFALL IS POSSIBLE THROUGHOUT THE SUSITNA VALLEY THIS
MORNING.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

AN ASHFALL ADVISORY MEANS THAT ASH WILL BE DEPOSITED IN THE
ADVISORY AREA. PEOPLE IN AREAS OF ASHFALL SHOULD SEAL WINDOWS AND
DOORS. PROTECT ELECTRONICS AND COVER AIR INTAKES AND OPEN WATER
SUPPLIES. MINIMIZE DRIVING. LISTEN TO YOUR RADIO STATION FOR
FURTHER INFORMATION.

Seeing the images (like the one above) from Mount Redoubt (aka “Jindal’s Bane”) in Alaska from two days ago, I am reminded of comments about volcano monitoring made by GOP Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal earlier this year. For political reasons (as opposed to sensible ones) he felt that we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars on volcano monitoring (as opposed to, oh, I dunno, taxpayer bailouts of senators whose homes were damaged by hurricane Katrina while thousands of ordinary citizens were left to fend for themselves).

Mr. Jindal (who once studied biology, but has worked tirelessly to bring offshore drilling to sensitive environments on the U.S. continental shelf, believes in intelligent design, and has experience in faith healing and exorcism) sorta kinda picked on the wrong force of nature to complain about for federal funding — since government spending on such things as volcano monitoring, earthquake monitoring and oh, yeah — wait for it… hurricane tracking — benefits a lot of people and pretty much saves lives in the process. But, he probably picked on volcanos because there are volcanoes in Hawai’i (which is where our president (a Democrat hails from)) and thought it might play well to his “base” in Louisiana (where, as far as I know a volcano hasn’t erupted ever).

Except that, as I said, he kinda picked on the wrong thing. Volcanoes affect more than the places they erupt all over. A big-enough volcanic eruption can dump a lot of material into the atmosphere — “natural” pollution, if you want to think of it that way. That does affect the entire planet.

Volcanic regions on planets provide more than just ashfall; they repave the surface with  lava and affect groundwater supplies. Scientifically, they give us insight into what’s happening deep beneath the surface of the planet. THAT is valid knowledge to pay for — and I’m glad that we do.  I would imagine that the redoubtable Sarah Palin (late of failed GOP presidential politics) is probably glad that we monitor volcanoes, too, since as governor of Alaska (a state that takes in more federal funding than it pays out in taxes), she’ll have to deal with the aftermath of the eruption (probably by applying for federal disaster relief funds and asking for even MORE monitoring).  Delicious irony abounds.

Anyway, back to the science part of this entry. Alaska’s Mount Redoubt is one of 130 volcanoes and volcanic fields that exist in the region. They’ve been pumping out stuff for the past 2 million years, with 50 of those bad boys active in historical times (since about the mid 1700s).  Redoubt began erupting overnight last night after weeks of increasingly strong seismic motions and visible warnings, like the image here. As of this morning, people downwind of the volcano are being blanketed with ash and warned to stay inside and protect their health and their electronics.  Aircraft are warned away from the area (you do NOT want volcanic ash anywhere near your engines, folks),and I would imagine that ships are staying away as well.

This is the sort of warning that volcano monitoring supplies for the people who live close to (and sometimes not so close to) volcanoes. People have known for days that this volcano is going to do something. They could prepare. Just like folks in the paths of hurricanes can prepare (as best they can) and evacuate (provided they have a way to do so).  I imagine the folks who live all along the Cook Inlet appreciate it, too.

Want to do a little volcano monitoring of your own?  Check out the Alaska Volcano Observatory page for the latest information on Redoubt. The Hawaii Volcano Page gives you real-time updates on the activity on the Big Island, and you can watch Mt. St. Helens live at this page. There is a great list of volcano cams from around the world here. The Smithsonian Institution and Harvard Sensor Networks Lab each have interesting pages about monitoring volcanoes, and the Yellowstone Park monitoring page gives info on the “supervolcano” region that the park lies in.

Monitoring volcanoes saves lives and technology. It teaches us about our planet. It’s science, and all the witch doctoring in the world isn’t going to help us understand Earth — but studying volcanoes (among other things) will.  And, I don’t know of any politician who would publicly admit that saving lives isn’t important. So, for this round, it’s Volcano: 1, Partisan politics): 0.