Forty years ago this past May, Mount St. Helens erupted, tragically claiming 57 lives and resulting in more than $1 billion in damages. As a nation, we were not prepared for this eruption, and it highlighted the critical need to reduce volcano hazard effects by enhancing our awareness, response and resilience to the more than 160 active volcanos in the United States.
Progress has been made since 1980 as our scientific knowledge about volcanoes has increased and technological innovations have improved. We are leading in the development of a coordinated and unified system to monitor, warn and safeguard people from volcanic activity dangers, a real threat across Washington State.
President Trump signed legislation, co-sponsored by senators Lisa Murkowski and Maria Cantwell, authorizing USGS to establish the National Volcano Early Warning System, a national-scale plan to ensure that volcanoes are monitored at levels commensurate to their threats. The goal of the NVEWS is to ensure that the most hazardous volcanoes will be properly monitored well in advance of the onset of activity, making it possible for scientists to improve the timeliness and accuracy of hazard forecasts and for citizens to take proper and timely action to reduce risk.
Fundamental to NVEWS is risk assessment. The USGS has updated the National Volcanic Threat Assessment, which categorized 161 volcanoes in 14 U.S. states and territories. Eighteen are identified as a “very high threat,” and 39 are recognized a “high threat.” Most of the very high threat volcanoes are along the west coast in Washington, Oregon, and California with another five in Alaska and two in Hawaii. For Washington, Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens are listed as very high threat with Mount Adams being listed as high threat. Identifying volcanic threat potential helps to prioritize monitoring locations, develop federal, state, local and academic partnerships, expedite monitoring installations and identify future scientific and technological needs.
Once NVEWS monitoring stations are deployed and networked, real-time information is provided to scientists, decision makers and public safety officials to make more accurately informed and earlier lifesaving decisions. Fortunately, volcanoes exhibit multiple indications of unrest that can, if detected early, warn of potential eruptions. Monitoring and successfully interpreting these indications allow USGS to release timely, accurate volcanic hazard forecasts to emergency managers and the public to help minimize loss of life and economic disruption. Accurate forecasting also provides land and emergency management agencies as well as aviation authorities enough time to issue warnings and prepare effective responses to an impending eruption.
When NVEWS is fully implemented, all hazardous U.S. volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens, will be monitored at levels consistent with the threat they pose to communities, infrastructure and aviation.
To measure threat indications, NVEWS will integrate existing systems and incorporate emerging technologies, such as modern seismometers; ground-based as well as airborne and satellite-based instruments for measuring deformation; acoustic sensors for detecting explosions; and real-time gas-measuring equipment. With advances in artificial intelligence, even greater warning times will be possible.
These enhancements to NVEWS are essential for more accurate real-time measurements that let volcanologists reliably assess the timing and location of eruption hazards.
Jim Reilly, a former NASA astronaut, serves as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s largest water, Earth and biological science, and civilian mapping agency.
Dan Newhouse is a Republican member of Congress from Yakima, representing Washington’s Fourth District.