Keeping a pulse on volcanoes near, far
Focus is wide at Cascades Volcano Observatory
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Did you know?
• May is Volcano Awareness Month in Washington. The state has five volcanic cones that are considered active:
Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak.
The Cascades Volcano Observatory’s name suggests an entirely Northwest focus. The file cabinets in John Ewert’s office suggest otherwise.
A handwritten label on one drawer simply reads “Colombia.” Another points to the southwest Pacific. Ecuador. Peru. Each refers to a far-away place the observatory’s scientists have watched over the years, often traveling to support local authorities when a potentially dangerous volcano starts acting up.
Of course, Cascades Volcano Observatory scientists also keep a constant, close eye on the mountains in their own backyard. To walk the halls of the observatory’s Vancouver headquarters is to be surrounded by a visual history of each volcano, particularly the Northwest’s most famous, Mount St. Helens. This month, Washington marks Volcano Awareness Month as the anniversary of the mountain’s catastrophic May 18, 1980, eruption approaches.
“It really started modern volcanology,” said Ewert, the observatory’s scientist-in-charge.
When the Cascades are relatively quiet -- as they are now -- volcanoes generally don’t land high on people’s list of day-to-day concerns, said John Pallister, chief of the observatory’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. But that doesn’t mean communities shouldn’t be ready, he said. An active volcano may only give a few days’ warning before waking up.
“It’s important to have established monitoring systems before a crisis,” Pallister said. “That can be a tough sell if there hasn’t been a crisis in a while.”
The Cascades Volcano Observatory is one of only five volcanic observatories operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. It and other facilities combine a variety of disciplines to keep a finger on the pulse of mountains near and far, and advance ongoing research to better understand them. Among the Vancouver office’s 55 or so staff are geologists, seismologists, hydrologists, petrologists and others.
The facility’s operations room offers a real-time look at Northwest mountains’ constant rumblings. Sixteen flat-screen monitors display seismic readings from several Washington and Oregon peaks, mounted around a pair of digital clocks.
At first glance, the readings may look more dire than they actually are. That’s because outside forces such as wind, footsteps or helicopters can kick up “noise” on the graphs. A sort of cheat sheet on the wall shows how to recognize them.
“After awhile, you kind of train your eye to see these things,” said Carolyn Driedger, an observatory hydrologist and outreach coordinator.
Seismologist Seth Moran is one of the scientists responsible for monitoring Northwest volcanoes’ activities daily. It’s no surprise that Mount St. Helens is the best equipped with monitoring gear, but Moran said he’d like to see better investments and equipment at some of the Northwest’s other peaks -- Oregon’s Mount Hood and Washington’s Glacier Peak among them.
Like other observatory scientists, Moran tackles regular research and projects as part of his day-to-day work. But when a Northwest volcano does something out of the ordinary -- as Mount St. Helens did during its last eruptive phase between 2004 and 2008 -- that changes.
“Everything drops,” Moran said.
Hitting the hot spots
Outside the Northwest, the Cascades Volcano Observatory’s international efforts remain active. Several local scientists were recently dispatched to Indonesia for “infrastructure building” to help authorities there monitor volcanic threats. Another group traveled to Colombia to help keep tabs on Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano recently showing signs of a possible eruption.
Both locations are familiar hot spots. Indonesia is among the most geologically active places in the world, and a densely populated landscape only adds to the risk of disaster, Pallister said. It’s also been the site of success stories -- as recently as 2010, an evacuation ahead of a major eruption saved thousands of lives, he said.
Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz helped spur international action more than two decades ago, after a 1985 eruption and subsequent mud and debris flow that killed more than 23,000 people. The Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program started the following year.
Volcanic activity doesn’t always result in that kind of calamity. Many events are much more docile. But just because a mountain isn’t erupting doesn’t mean it’s not talking, Moran said.
“Volcanoes are constantly chattering away,” Moran said. “And when they’re chattering, we have to pay attention.”