Monday, June 21, 2021
June 21, 2021

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Volcano work still a blast despite COVID

USGS’ Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver continues, adapts its mission during pandemic

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A field team from the Cascades Volcano Observatory discuss station maintenance plans on the north side of Mount St. Helens. Pictured in the center of the crater is a steaming lava dome from the 2004-08 eruption, and the fractured surface of Crater Glacier emerging from the gap on the north flank.
A field team from the Cascades Volcano Observatory discuss station maintenance plans on the north side of Mount St. Helens. Pictured in the center of the crater is a steaming lava dome from the 2004-08 eruption, and the fractured surface of Crater Glacier emerging from the gap on the north flank. (Jessica Bersson/USGS-Cascades Volcano Observatory) Photo Gallery

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens gave scientists a peek into the dynamics of an active volcano. The blast that killed 57 people was the most recent in a series of disastrous eruptions that rattle the Cascade Range twice every 100 years or so.

Then came another once-in-a-century disaster: a global pandemic that has the U.S. Geological Survey working in a COVID-19 world.

“The pandemic definitely disrupted things,” said Jon Major, scientist in charge of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in east Vancouver. “In mid-March 2020, we went to full telework mode.”

Projects were put on hold. Face-to-face connections — from officemates chatting over lunch to a volcanologist consulting with a colleague at an Indonesian eruption — now happen remotely.

On the bright side, some of the virtual volcanology has been quite effective; it won’t be just an emergency fallback when the pandemic is over. And the last year has helped one local scientist nurture her inner lightning bug.

Volcano Face to Face

Visitors can get a face-to-face view of the Mount St. Helens crater at Johnston Ridge Observatory, about 5 miles north of the volcano summit.

The observatory is closed until further notice, but the parking lot and the viewing plaza outside the building are clear of snow and have been drawing visitors. Some trails also are clear. On Monday, afternoon temperatures were in the 50s.

Johnston Ridge is about two hours and 95 miles from Vancouver, via Interstate 5 to Castle Rock and state Route 504. Also known as the Spirit Lake Highway, the 52-mile-long road ends at the observatory.

Until the observatory reopens, the closest restrooms are 7 miles away, at Coldwater Lake; the recreational site is at Milepost 45. Facilities also are available at the Forest Learning Center (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) just past Milepost 33.

The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Any decisions about reopening the observatory will be made by the Pacific Northwest regional forester, who oversees the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The observatory in Cascade Park monitors volcanic activity in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Mount Hood and the Three Sisters are Northwest icons. An image of Mount Rainier is on Washington license plates. (Idaho and Oregon plates have more generic mountain backgrounds.)

But they’re not just iconic; they’re volcanic. “And they do erupt,” Major said in a phone telephone interview. “The average over the past 10,000 years is maybe two eruptions a century.”

The observatory’s staff members have three primary missions, Major said.

  • They conduct research, studying geologic history and developing techniques for assessing hazards such as volcanic ash and mudslides known as lahars.
  • They monitor volcanic activity.
  • They collaborate with emergency managers on community preparedness.

Not all of the tasks are Zoom-friendly. “You can’t telework on building monitoring equipment,” Major said. “About 80 people are on the staff, and about 15 will be in the office on any given day.” (No visitors are allowed.)

A few scientists have been able to get their hands dirty on mountain slopes.

“We’re trying to do as much field work as we can under pandemic protocols,” Major said.

Remote warning systems could save lives, so installing monitors is considered a critical mission. That’s why Rebecca Kramer has been able to stay pretty much on task during the pandemic. A field engineer and geophysicist, Kramer plans the networks of monitoring instruments and oversees their installation.

“We crossed most of the things off our list this year,” Kramer said during a pandemic-protocoled interview at the Cascade Park facility. “I don’t feel like we were scaling back at all.”

Upgrading and expanding the lahar detection system on Mount Rainier was a significant pandemic project in 2020. If a devastating mudflow were to roll down Mount Rainier’s flank toward Orting, wailing sirens would give city residents about 40 minutes to evacuate.

Kramer also was part of a September-October project on the north flank of Mount Hood, adding three new stations with seismic, GPS and gas-monitoring technology. This month, Kramer was part of a team scheduled to install 16 temporary GPS stations in the Yellowstone volcanic caldera, a crater formed by a cataclysmic eruption about 640,000 years ago. (The project was featured in a recent Columbian story.)

In another installation, staff members are headed to California to put gas-sensing stations on Lassen Peak.

The observatory also provides technological aid during volcanic events in other countries. But the on-site support that usually is part of the international disaster assistance has gone virtual.

“St. Vincent in the Caribbean started to get restless in December. In January, we shipped three pallets of equipment,” Major said. “Folks there installed it, and our staff here helped diagnose the seismic signals.”

Research continues

On the research front, Alexa Van Eaton was able to backpack into the Cascades for two weeks of September field work, before focusing on telework.

“It was a really productive trip,” Van Eaton said in a telephone interview. It’s a remote area, she said, so there was no risk of COVID exposure.

As a physical volcanologist, Van Eaton studies both current and previous eruptions. Direct observation of active volcanism is combined with study of older deposits from ancient eruptions. She likened it to assembling a 3D puzzle of ash layers over 13,000 years and analyzing what it could mean in the future.

There is another element to her observations: “I’m becoming a lightning geek.”

Volcano-generated lightning was described almost 2,000 years ago, when Pliny the Younger wrote about the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Van Eaton has been interested in the phenomenon for several years, but a January eruption in the Philippines really caught her eye. A videographer filmed lightning bursts from the Taal eruption and the footage was something Van Eaton could analyze at home. The topic involves using a lot of remote sensing, “which is convenient during COVID.”

Her research has expanded from how lightning is created to how it can be used as a diagnostic tool, since ground-hugging pyroclastic flows and vertical ash clouds have different lightning patterns.

There is a productive aspect to research in a pandemic, geologist Liz Westby said.

“This has been a time to take a deep breath and take a look at data,” Westby said.

Scientists have been able to turn their research findings into reports, hydrologist Carolyn Driedger said from her home office. There’s a backlog at the agency department that reviews manuscripts ahead of publication.

The community preparedness mission has its own coronavirus challenge. In that role, USGS personnel work with local and regional officials who have a lot on their plates.

“Emergency managers are working on COVID. They’re all really busy. It’s challenging to keep other hazards in the forefront,” said Driedger, who has done a lot of the Cascades Observatory’s public outreach work over the years. “It was the same in 2001. After 9/11, people didn’t have time to talk about volcanoes for a couple of years.”

While inconvenient, the COVID protocols seem to have paid off. There was one case of coronavirus among the employees, and that person was quarantined.

“There was no spread here,” Westby said in a socially distanced interview outside the building.

Once the observatory returns to volcano business as usual, some of the COVID-prompted procedures will continue.

“Because of the pandemic, we do more remotely,” Westby said. “We can analyze here and communicate via Zoom or email. It’s actually a very effective way.”

The personal touch will always be paramount, however.

“I’m looking forward to getting people back into the office,” scientist-in-charge Major said. “Remote technology is great, but there’s nothing like face to face. It fosters those water-cooler conversations that can spark something.”

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