Thirty-one years ago, John Ewert was a college graduate fascinated with Mount St. Helens. Today, he's the new scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver. He's spent his entire 30-year-career at the observatory, which monitors all Cascade Range volcanoes.
"I make no bones about it. I've been very lucky," Ewert said Monday from his Vancouver office. "I had just graduated in May 1980, and I looked hard to find a job out here because I thought it was a pretty spectacular event. I wanted to know more about it and participate and contribute to those studies."
A geologist by training, Ewert started at the CVO the first week of January in 1981. That was nine months after the May 18, 1980 eruption, which killed 57 people, destroyed 200 homes and laid waste an expanse of forest.
His first job was taking gas readings in a small plane that flew over the volcano. He later studied various aspects of the volcano and in 1986 helped form the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. VDAP is the only rapid-response volcano crisis team in the world, a kind of scientific SWAT team. Prior to taking the scientist in charge position, Ewert, 52, crossed the globe to help with volcano monitoring and bring back knowledge to scientists studying Mount St. Helens and the other Cascade Range volcanoes.
Now he oversees all the research taking place at the CVO — including Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. He took the new post in November. Despite the intensive study of Mount St. Helens in the past 31 years, Ewert says there's still much work to be done to understand the slumbering beasts.
"There's still a lot we don't know about how volcanoes work," he said. "Volcanology is still a young science. ... When you compare it to meteorology, we're about where weather forecasting was maybe 40 years ago. Back when the first weather satellites were going up and they could actually see the weather from space and monitor it day to day. Our challenge (in volcanology) is that to find out what may or may not be happening we have to be able to see into the earth. And that's a little more difficult."
Ewert said the myriad research projects taking place at the CVO will help improve understanding of how volcanoes work.
One proposed project, partnering with the National Science Foundation, would do geophysical deep imaging of Mount St. Helens using seismic, electromagnetic and gravity readings. The images will help peer down to the magma "plumbing system" to get a better idea of what the volcano is doing and when, Ewert said.
"Now, we have a pretty good idea of what the shallow crust down to 10 kilometers (looks like), but it gets pretty hazy beyond that."
Another project is producing more accurate and real-time models of where ash clouds will be blown. Knowing where and when to send warnings not only saves lives but can also avoid needless closing of airports. An eruption in Iceland last year, for example, "basically shut down airspace in Europe for more than a week," Ewert said.
Scientists also are painstakingly uncovering and recording all past eruptions in the Cascades, hoping to learn from history and its patterns. The constant rain and glacial erosion can erase "easy" signs of past eruptions, so the time in the field is more labor-intensive, Ewert said.
And, Ewert hopes to work on the proposed National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring Program, which is having a senate hearing in Washington, D.C. today. The project — estimated to cost $15 million a year for 10 years by bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — would establish monitors on many volcanoes that have little to no instrumentation. Mount St. Helens already has more monitors than is proposed for the other volcanoes and thus wouldn't see an increase in instruments. Scientists could learn more about volcanoes in general, though, and that could help predict the next Mount St. Helens eruption, Ewert said.
The price tag is expensive, and times are tough, but Ewert said tracking what's happening on the nation's volcanoes is critical.
"We have a lot of volcanoes in the United States — 170 of them. ... And since 1980 there have been something like 100 eruptions from 35 or so of them. So, volcanically, we're pretty busy," he said. "And in the Cascades we have 13 large volcanoes and a lot of smaller ones. And one thing I bring from VDAP, is you just never know when these volcanoes are going to switch on and move toward eruption."
"And once you start getting earthquakes or see something happening at the surface, you're already behind the curve if you haven't been watching to see what is normal and what the baseline is," Ewert said. "So if you're coming to the game late, you never know how long the fuse is."