Volcano scientists return from Colombia

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Cascades Volcano Observatory's most recent international dispatch didn't turn out as eventful as some previous trips. Showing signs of unrest earlier this year, Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano had mostly quieted down by the time a trio of American scientists arrived in late April.

photoAndy Lockhart, a scientist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, helps authorities in Colombia monitor volcano Nevado del Ruiz. A 1986 eruption by the mountain triggered a mud flow, or lahar, that killed 23,000 people.

That didn't make the visit any less valuable, said geophysicist Andrew Lockhart. Any time local scientists help monitor a potentially threatening volcano somewhere else, the knowledge goes both ways, he said.

"We go down, and we bring back almost as much as we take down," Lockhart said.

Two of the men who made the trip work out of the Vancouver-based volcano observatory: Lockhart and computer programmer Chris Lockett. A third joined them from Menlo Park, Calif.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Volcano Disaster Assistance Program sends out researchers to help other countries deal with the dangerous volcanoes in their backyards. The program has had its share of success stories — as recently as 2010, a team of Vancouver-based scientists helped coordinate the evacuation of thousands of people out of the way of a major eruption in Indonesia. The action prevented an already deadly disaster from being much, much worse, said John Pallister, who leads the assistance program at CVO.

Last month, Lockhart and others were summoned to Colombia after an intrusion of magma made its way close to the surface of Nevado del Ruiz. Monitoring systems weren't all working as desired, Lockhart said, and the group brought new equipment to add to the toolbox. Scientists also worked with software that helps better interpret seismic data as it comes in.

Pallister made it clear that observatory scientists aren't there to take the lead over local authorities — doing so would be harmful in a dangerous situation, he said. Rather, the assistance program is about lending support and giving communities what they need to prevent the loss of life and property, he said. And scientists can't arrange a trip on their own.

"We don't go without an invitation," Lockhart said. "And the invitation has to be government-to-government."

It was Nevado del Ruiz that spurred the creation of the assistance program in 1986. The year before, the volcano let loose an eruption and subsequent mud flow that killed 23,000 people.

As a result, Colombian scientists know well the danger of those flows, also called lahars. The most recent CVO visit left them more ready to respond when they do become a threat, Lockhart said.

"The need for lahar monitors is critical," he said. "That's not something you want to mess around with."

Nevado del Ruiz and some other South American volcanoes aren't unlike the Northwest's Cascades, Lockhart said. They're large and snow-capped, adding to the risk of flows in the event of an eruption. A similar event could happen — and has happened — here, he said.

The volcano assistance program has sent scientists all over the world since 1986. Lockhart puts his own tally at 60 mountains in 13 countries during that time.

His group returned from Colombia earlier this month. Nevado del Ruiz showed signs of activity, but fell silent without an eruption this time.

"When it does happen next time," Lockhart said, "they'll be quite a bit better prepared."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.