“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.”
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.”