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.”