Executive Summary

Volcanic eruptions create some of nature’s most dramatic displays. Depending on their magnitude and location, they also have the potential for becoming major social and economic disasters. To date, the United States has been relatively fortunate in this regard, having had only one large eruption near a major metropolitan area, that of Mount St. Helens near Portland, Oregon, in 1980. This event killed more than 50 people and caused considerable damage to infrastructure and timber resources. However, its most severe effects were restricted to lightly populated portions of rural Washington State. More frequent, recent eruptions in Alaska and Hawaii generally have had only local impacts.

Three recent developments make volcanoes increasingly dangerous for American citizens. First, rapid population and economic growth in the northwestern United States places more and more people, and some of our most critical industries closer to the regions’ major sleeping volcanoes, including Mount Rainier and Mount Baker near Seattle-Tacoma, and Mount Hood near Portland. Second, the most heavily traveled transpacific air routes pass over more than 100 active Alaskan and Russian volcanoes, putting more than 10,000 people and millions of dollars worth of cargo in danger every day. A sudden eruption of ash, if undetected, could easily bring down a 747 by coating its engines with a debilitating layer of molten glass. Finally, the rapid and pervasive globalization of the economy means that U.S. companies and financial markets are increasingly vulnerable to disruptions caused by volcanic disasters anywhere in the world.

In the face of these dangers, federal and state government agencies in the United States rely primarily on the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Hazards Program (VHP) to keep track of the status of all domestic volcanoes. This is a complex task that starts with fundamental research on the processes controlling the way volcanoes erupt. Research



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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program Executive Summary Volcanic eruptions create some of nature’s most dramatic displays. Depending on their magnitude and location, they also have the potential for becoming major social and economic disasters. To date, the United States has been relatively fortunate in this regard, having had only one large eruption near a major metropolitan area, that of Mount St. Helens near Portland, Oregon, in 1980. This event killed more than 50 people and caused considerable damage to infrastructure and timber resources. However, its most severe effects were restricted to lightly populated portions of rural Washington State. More frequent, recent eruptions in Alaska and Hawaii generally have had only local impacts. Three recent developments make volcanoes increasingly dangerous for American citizens. First, rapid population and economic growth in the northwestern United States places more and more people, and some of our most critical industries closer to the regions’ major sleeping volcanoes, including Mount Rainier and Mount Baker near Seattle-Tacoma, and Mount Hood near Portland. Second, the most heavily traveled transpacific air routes pass over more than 100 active Alaskan and Russian volcanoes, putting more than 10,000 people and millions of dollars worth of cargo in danger every day. A sudden eruption of ash, if undetected, could easily bring down a 747 by coating its engines with a debilitating layer of molten glass. Finally, the rapid and pervasive globalization of the economy means that U.S. companies and financial markets are increasingly vulnerable to disruptions caused by volcanic disasters anywhere in the world. In the face of these dangers, federal and state government agencies in the United States rely primarily on the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Hazards Program (VHP) to keep track of the status of all domestic volcanoes. This is a complex task that starts with fundamental research on the processes controlling the way volcanoes erupt. Research

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program provides the basic concepts that underlie the various methods of volcano data collection and interpretation. The oversight continues with three operational components—assessment of hazard based on past history, monitoring of early warning signals that can indicate incipient eruptions, and design of crisis response strategies when large eruptions take place. Assessment’s key challenge is deciding which volcanoes to study and in how much detail. Monitoring requires the measurement of geophysical, geodetic, and geochemical parameters, as well as baseline observations that allow premonitory changes to be recognized. A successful crisis response is characterized by rapid deployment of staff and equipment and by clear communication with civil defense officials and the public at large. A final outreach stage is necessary to inform civil defense officials and the public at large about the risks they face from volcanoes. The VHP also maintains a team of scientists and technicians, partly supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), that assists foreign governments with volcano hazard mitigation. This Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) has had more than a dozen successful deployments in the past 10 years, most notably helping colleagues in the Philippines during the massive Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991. This intervention saved tens of thousands of Filipino lives and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of hardware at two U.S. military bases. To assess how well the VHP is carrying out its mandated functions, the Geologic and Water Resources Divisions of the USGS requested in 1998 that the National Research Council (NRC) conduct an independent review. The NRC formed a committee of 10 members, representing industry, academia, and county and federal agencies, to evaluate how well the VHP fulfills these obligations. The specific charge was to answer two questions: Do the activities, priorities, and expertise of the VHP meet appropriate scientific goals? Are scientific investigations and research results throughout the VHP effectively integrated and applied to achieve mitigation? Four meetings were held in 1999, during which the committee interviewed a variety of external experts, stakeholders, and USGS scientists, technicians, and administrators from both inside and outside

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program the VHP. The committee also received written input from eight others. This report contains the findings of the committee. In attempting to answer these two questions, the committee found that today’s VHP is in many ways a product of its history. Throughout most of its existence, the program’s focus was concentrated in Hawaii, which commonly has a limited range of relatively benign volcanic eruption styles. Hence the expertise required of VHP personnel, the types of monitoring and assessment activities, and the appropriate scientific goals were all somewhat restricted. Prioritization among these activities was straightforward and effective. However, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 presented the program with a greatly expanded set of scientific problems and mitigation activities, requiring a wider complement of expertise. To acquire these new skills, the VHP depended upon retraining existing Geologic Division (GD) personnel and the addition of new hires who were mostly housed in the Water Resources Division (WRD). This response produced a more diverse but somewhat bifurcated staff. Most GD scientists had backgrounds in petrology, geochemistry, and sedimentology; relied largely on mapping and age dating as their primary tools; and preferred to work independently for extended periods. The generally younger WRD staff members included hydrologists, geophysicists, and structural geologists who were more familiar with quantitative methods, laboratory simulations, and mechanical modeling and who had greater experience with collaborative approaches. Furthermore, the two divisions had different policies and procedures for performance evaluations and job assignments. Melding these two components into a coherent organization capable of carrying out all of the VHP’s responsibilities has been a major administrative challenge. Among the many impressions that emerged from this review, two stood out—one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the VHP is comprised of a dedicated scientific and technical staff that has a wealth of practical experience, coupled with good theoretical understanding of underlying volcanic and hydrologic processes. On the negative side, an almost total failure to hire more than a token number of new personnel over the past 15 years has created a crisis of continuity in which much of the program’s accumulated knowledge is in danger of being permanently lost due to upcoming retirements. Such a loss would have severe consequences during future volcanic emergencies. Because eruptions are

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program so idiosyncratic and variable, the most valuable asset in assessing how a crisis will evolve is firsthand experience with previous events. The VHP is at a major crossroads. Early in its history, scientific investigation formed the foundation of all of the program’s activities. Its staff included some of the most accomplished volcanologists, petrologists, geochemists, and geophysicists in the country, if not the world. Attractive career paths in the VHP lured many of the most promising young geoscience graduates away from academic positions. All VHP scientists were expected and encouraged to carry out fundamental research as a central part of their jobs. Although much of this work was applicable to hazard mitigation, the connections were sometimes indirect. Responding to administrative redirection, basic research has become a lower priority for many members of today’s VHP than the main mission of reducing the impact of volcanic eruptions. As a consequence, the center of gravity of volcanological knowledge, at least in the United States, has shifted away from the USGS and the VHP. Nonetheless, the VHP has made major contributions in a number of important areas: the development and application of assessment and monitoring techniques, crisis assistance, fluvial process knowledge, and aviation safety. The implications for the VHP of the paucity of recent hiring, the prospects of flat budgets, and the shifting of staff emphasis from research to application are all the same—the program has to find better ways to leverage its resources so that it can continue to meet its mandate to mitigate volcanic hazards. The most direct way to accomplish this goal would be to hire more people. Alternatively, the VHP has to engage more actively in partnerships with other federal agencies, international counterparts, the private sector, and universities. Partnerships can take a variety of forms, from formal collaborations with other research groups on specific volcanological problems, to collocation of facilities with universities, to sabbatical programs through which VHP personnel spend time working with counterparts in other organizations, to the creation of volcanological grant programs jointly administered by the VHP and other agencies. Another practical way to respond to this deficit of new skills is for VHP management to aggressively promote the retraining of existing personnel. A related issue concerns the way in which the VHP carries out hazard assessments. A common approach within the VHP has been for an individual scientist to have full responsibility for carrying out a long-

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program term mapping and age-dating investigation of a single volcano. These projects can last for a decade or longer, during which time other scientists, both inside and outside the VHP, are discouraged from taking on similar studies at the same site. Preliminary data and conclusions may remain inaccessible until the entire work is completed. The result is that even rudimentary assessments for these volcanoes are unavailable, and the reports that eventually come out may have very personal stamps. A newer and more efficient approach that has been successfully used by the VHP at Mount Rainier is to have a more coordinated effort through which a team of volcanologists evaluates many different aspects of the hazards in a shorter amount of time. This method brings a much broader set of expertise to bear on the specific assessment, including collaborators from outside the VHP. The faster turnaround time means that revised versions of hazard analyses are completed and made available to the public in a more timely fashion. The autonomy shown by individual VHP scientists in establishing deadlines for their hazard assessments also has been reflected in the way volcanoes are selected for study. The committee was not presented with evidence of any long-term plan that indicated which volcanoes would be analyzed in what time frame. Rather, senior geologists in the program seem to pick the volcano they want to work on based on their own judgment and preferences. Although some oversight is provided today by USGS review panels that approve funding for individual research projects, the committee felt that the program manager, team leader and scientists in charge of each observatory could and should exercise more influence over the assignment process, consulting with each other to ensure a more coordinated approach to assessing the nation’s volcanoes. Among the volcanoes that have not been studied to date, the Aleutians were seen as the most problematic. The dangers posed to aircraft by sudden ash discharges are among the most serious threats to life and property overseen by the USGS. Although a program of lengthy and comprehensive assessment of all of the active Aleutians is not considered practical, preliminary studies for all of the potentially eruptible centers should be embarked upon immediately. The efforts of the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) in this regard are commendable. AVO’s budget has to be maintained or increased to a level that allows these initial studies to be carried out promptly, in order to guide the placement of instruments that can give early warnings to pilots of commercial and military aircraft.

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program More centralized organizational control is also essential for data collection, documentation, public access, and storage. Volcanology in general, and the VHP in particular, have not embraced the widespread movement toward universal and prompt data access found in other disciplines such as meteorology, seismology, and oceanography. In these fields, original data are commonly posted on the Internet in near real time, using widely accepted standards. In volcanology, there is a danger that the press or civil authorities might misinterpret prematurely released premonitory information, leading to inappropriate evacuations or panic. On the other hand, putting such data on-line allows both public education and more effective collaboration with scientists in other organizations. Overall, the committee feels that the advantages of timely access to data collected as part of the VHP’s monitoring function outweigh the liabilities. Furthermore, the USGS should take the lead in establishing standards for archiving publicly accessible volcanological information and should evaluate which legacy data sets collected by observatories and individual scientists ought to be preserved and made accessible with defined standards for metadata and data quality. Partnerships have the added advantage of allowing the VHP to fill in its deficiencies in expertise. For instance, gas geochemistry and remote sensing were identified as two important tools in modern volcanology that have been relatively neglected within the program. Universities and government facilities, such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center contain many leaders in these disciplines. Better coordination with labs and universities would allow VHP staff members to take greater advantage of the latest advances in these fields. The committee heard nearly universal praise for the outreach and educational activities carried out by the VHP, particularly by the Cascades Volcano Observatory. However, two bureaucratic barriers limit the effectiveness of these efforts. First, dissemination of the public education products generated by the VHP is very expensive to the program. Many recipients, such as schools and local governments, are willing to pay some or all of the costs of production. However, any revenue so collected goes into general federal government accounts rather than back to the program. This means that expanding outreach is discouraged by overall VHP budget limitations. A second barrier is that outreach activities have not received a high priority in VHP performance evaluations.

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Review of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program Today’s Volcano Hazards Program evolved slowly from many antecedents within the USGS. For most of its first half-century, the VHP concerned itself with issues that had little impact on the American people. Population growth in the western United States, and the expansion of international commerce have greatly increased the threats posed by volcanoes, even though most citizens and policy makers remain unaware of these dangers. The size of the program has not kept pace with the growth of the risks. Although in its last major test, during the Mount Pinatubo crisis, the VHP was highly successful, the prognosis for the future is less optimistic. Diminishing staff sizes mean that the program is trying to do too many things with too few people. If existing trends continue, one of the next major eruptions will likely overwhelm its capability to respond. The committee concludes that the VHP faces two choices: (1) its staff size must be significantly increased and/or better leveraged through partnerships; or (2) its mission must be scaled back in conjunction with major retraining of existing staff so that fundamental research, hazard assessment, and outreach play subsidiary roles to monitoring and crisis response. A combination of expanded partnerships with other research organizations and retraining of existing personnel could compensate for some of the lost capability associated with reduced staff size. However, the second and more drastic option of shrinking the scope of VHP responsibilities would likely be counterproductive in the long run. A VHP without a core research component will not be optimally prepared to negotiate the complex decision-making required in volcanic crises. In addition, it will not be able to attract and retain the best scientists, who will be sorely needed in a crisis situation.

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