The Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver has lost about 40 percent of its operating budget this year due to sequestering of federal funds and other budget cuts, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
There’s still enough money to monitor Mount St. Helens, but funding cutbacks have delayed equipment upgrades and prevented the agency from expanding its monitoring of Pacific Northwest volcanoes, said John Ewert, scientist in charge of the observatory.
Federal scientists in particular want to improve their monitoring of Glacier Peak in Northwest Washington, which, after Mount St. Helens, is the most likely volcano to erupt next, Ewert said.
Simply put, the money is just not there “to bring monitoring of Cascade Range volcanoes to where it needs to be,” Ewert said in an interview last week.
The helicopter budget — which is used to fly USGS scientists into the crater and other remote locations around Mount St. Helens — has been trimmed by half, Ewert said. So far no positions have been cut, but the Vancouver-based observatory has instituted a hiring freeze and reduced training, and some employees may need to be furloughed.
Funding cuts to federal agencies may delay an unprecedented effort to map the earth up to 60 miles beneath Mount St. Helens. The effort involves setting up about 2,500 small seismographs around the mountain and igniting 10 to 20 underground explosions in 80-foot-deep wells. The seismographs would pick up the shock waves, and scientists hope to use the readings to better image the plumbing of the volcano right down to where tectonic plates collide and molten rock rises and pools in underground reservoirs. The study, scientists say, may help predict the dangers at volcanoes around the world.
The study is funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation Grant, but Ewert said cuts to the Forest Service budget likely will hold up permitting for the effort, which will take place on federal land. The USGS is working with four other universities on the project, including the University of Washington.
Delaying such major research initiatives also could make it harder for the USGS to recruit scientific talent, Ewert said. “Everything is getting pushed back. It’s frustrating,” Ewert said.