The United States could finally equip itself with a rapid warning system for volcanoes

Mount St. Helens, responsible for the deadliest volcanic eruption in US history.
Photo: Kimon Berlin (Flickr)

America is home to 161 active volcanoes spread across 12 states and two overseas territories. This makes it easily one of the most volcanic places on the planet. That is why it is deeply strange that the United States does not yet have a nationwide early warning system for their burning mountains.

A land conservation bill passed by the Senate earlier this month and passed in the House Tuesday changed that. Under the patronage of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Natural Resources Management Act, or S.47, calls for a drastic change in the number of natural wonders that are managed in America. The bill has received wide attention for the designation of more than one million acres of wilderness, but its call for the establishment of the National Volcanoes Warning and Monitoring System (NVEWS) went largely unnoticed.

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This system would allow the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to keep an eye on these 161 volcanoes at a level worthy of their threatening nature. NVEWS would "modernize, standardize and stabilize" the USGS volcanological observatories – the Alaska, California, Cascades, Hawaii and Yellowstone chapters – while transforming their surveillance networks into a single, interoperable system.

The idea is not new. In reality, the USGS has been pushing for the NVEWS for about 14 years now.

As Charles Mandeville, coordinator of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, told Nottis, NVEWS has been in the hell of legislation since its first proposal. Although NVEWS has been introduced by many congressional delegations (in 2005, 2007, 2012 and 2013), so far, there has never been a bill in a chamber that has been welcomed by a bill complementary in the other.

Fortunately, the bill has now been passed by both the House and the Senate with broad bipartisan support. Democrats have backed the expanded land package because of its many environmental protections, while Republicans have benefited from the increased access that individuals will get to public lands. It seems that NVEWS is well integrated. Now, if the bill is passed by the president, the early warning system will finally be allowed.

This is good news because the current state of American volcano monitoring is far from satisfactory. According to the latest national assessment of the volcanic threat by the USGS, which details the dangers posed by the country's volcanoes, 57 of them represent a "high" or "very high" threat to societies, economies, infrastructure, etc. Despite this, the USGS is "only 30-40% of the way needed to have an ideal monitoring network for these volcanoes," said Mandeville.

The coverage of instrumentation, seismic sensors and GPS stations to gas detectors, varies a lot. According to Mandeville, there is "a modest amount" of coverage out of 88 out of a total of 161. Alaska, which is home to an impressive 52 active volcanoes, only has instruments for 31 years. between them. In the Cascades, home to many threatening volcanoes, surveillance equipment is often obsolete. For example, Mount Rainier now has an improved early warning system to warn people living at the bottom of the lahars arrival slope, mud mud and volcanic debris moving quickly.

NVEWS would fill the gaps, first by providing each active volcano with the monitoring equipment it needs, through upgrades or recent installation packages.

But that would do more than that. NVEWS would set up a 24-hour volcano monitoring office to serve the entire country. Even when the individual observatories are not in crisis response mode, this office is available, processes and analyzes the real-time data flow of all 161 volcanoes and detects any disturbing signs before an eruption occurs. This would also help streamline the agency's cooperation with emergency responders and local governments.

Sarah DeYoung, assistant professor at the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia, told Earther that this would give the impression that "it would improve the time of warnings that may require evacuations". The general public checks warnings for hurricanes and daybreaks already, but this monitoring office "could issue warnings in advance because there would be someone around the clock watching over them." changes or indications of activity ".

Integration is a concept that occupies a prominent place in NVEWS. Although they still have their own skills, all USGS observatories would act as one body. By unifying the technological systems that monitor US volcanoes, researchers will be able to exploit multiple data streams much more efficiently. It would also allow USGS staff, wherever they are in the world, to access complex data and interpret it remotely.

Fortunately, this system was a kind of running during the Kilauea Crisis, with observatory experts from all over the United States sent to study the eruption on the spot. Kilauea may have destroyed 700 houses, but the fact that the USGS and its cooperation with local authorities proved that no one had perished in the few months following this eruption was also the most watched geological event of human history.

NVEWS also extends beyond the borders of the USGS, setting up a funding program for universities and institutions. It would provide financial assistance to those seeking new monitoring techniques, new analytical techniques and new systems integrating all kinds of volcanological data, from seismic signals to (increased) satellite coverage.

All this will leave the USGS far better equipped to catch volcanoes preparing for an eruption. In addition to ensuring public safety, this "also puts the volcanologists at less risk if we do not catch up with a malnourished volcano that is progressing rapidly towards an eruption," Mandeville said.

Mandeville emphasized that NVEWS would protect the entire country, not just states with volcanoes. A fairly large eruption on the Pacific coast, he said, would severely disrupt the supply chain of resources from this region, which would create all kinds of socio-economic troubles.

"We have all seen the damage that a small eruption can cause, even at Eyjafjallajökull, where the most serious effects were felt far from the volcano," explained the volcanologist. Janine Krippner He told Earther he was referring to the Icelandic volcano whose ash cloud had closed European airspace in 2010. "Volcanic activity should not be just the concern of people who live nearby.

The selling price of NVEWS, according to the bill, is $ 55 million. In terms of US budget numbers, it's groundnut. As a comparison, military expenditures for fiscal 2019 amounted to $ 597.1 billion.

However, it is only a draft authorization law to launch NVEWS. If it is signed, the Congress will have to allocate the funds separately. Even assuming funds are allocated, this early warning system will not work overnight.

"If NVEWS is adopted and we receive the money tomorrow, it would take 7 to 10 years to fill the gaps in the surveillance of high threat and very high threat volcanoes," Mandeville said. At the same time, the USGS must be able to adapt to the onset of unexpected new technological advances.

That's why the clock is running. Nobody knows when the next volcanic paroxysm could occur and if NVEWS is not fully operational, the United States will be at a distinct disadvantage. As recent developments have shown, there is room for hope.

After the passage of the bill by the Senate, and just before the approval of the House by the House, Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and co-founder of Blueprint Earth, a non-profit education organization, told Earther that the Kilauea eruption should be a new thought for many representatives. She felt that this would encourage them to give the USGS what it needs.

"Understanding and monitoring threats from volcanoes is an essential part of public safety. We need leaders who recognize that better information leads to better preparedness, which equates to lives saved, "she said. If they do not recognize it, the message to the public is clear, she added: "elect lawmakers to listen to scientists".

Finally, after 14 years, it seems like these lawmakers have done it.

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