Past success and future planning reduce volcanic risk and save lives

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Five volcanoes erupting in the United States within the past two months - Kīlauea, Mount St. Helens, and Augustine, Mt. Cleveland, and possibly Korovin in Alaska - call attention to the constant vigilance required by scientists to notify people of volcanic activity and warn them of its possible dangers.

Past success and future planning reduce volcanic risk and save live...

View of the continuous eruptive ash cloud at Augustine volcano, Alaska, extending from the vent to the North-East on January 30, 2006. Photo by Pavel Izbekov, Alaska Volcano Observatory / University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute.

(Public domain.)

In January, for example, explosive eruptions of Augustine Volcano sent plumes of ash as high as 15 km (50,000 feet) above sea level, causing aircraft to be diverted from their normal routes and airlines to cancel some flights. Just before, and throughout, the peak activity, scientists of the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) worked around the clock to track the volcano's activity and issue warnings of significant ash plumes within minutes of when they occurred.

This capability required experienced volcanologists from other U.S. volcano observatories to lend a hand to AVO's continuous operation in January and February. It also involved the installation of new monitoring instruments and repairs to existing equipment in the middle of an Alaskan winter. Meanwhile, scientists at the Cascades and Hawaiian Volcano Observatories continued to monitor the 1.5-year eruption of Mount St. Helens and the 23-year eruption of Kīlauea.

At all U.S. volcano observatories, scientists are prepared to respond immediately to sudden changes that are detected at volcanoes that have shown increased signs of activity in the past few years, for example, Mauna Loa in Hawai`i, Mount Spurr in Alaska, Three Sisters in Oregon, and Long Valley caldera in California.

This activity provided a perfect backdrop for a meeting last week in Portland, Oregon, to help plan for the future implementation of a National Volcano Early Warning System. The framework for this expanded volcano monitoring and warning system was described in a report released in April 2005 (see Volcano Watch, May 8, 2005).

The report evaluated the U.S. volcano-monitoring capabilities, based on a systematic assessment of threats posed by all of the 169 geologically active U.S. volcanic centers. It recommended an appropriate monitoring level, taking into account the relative threat of each volcano.

The workshop in Portland was attended by 70 people from different organizations with different backgrounds and professions. They included scientists (several from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the University of Hawai`i), airline dispatchers, air-traffic controllers of the Federal Aviation Administration, land managers from National Forests and Parks (including the Hawai`i Volcanoes and Mount Rainier National Parks), emergency management professionals from FEMA and several states, and representatives from the National Weather Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Air Force, and Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.

Being in touch with people and organizations who stand to benefit or lose from the success or failure of our volcano studies and eruption warnings is vital to reducing the risk to people and property and saving lives from future volcano activity, wherever it may occur.

The two-day meeting focused on providing better volcano information and methods of communicating to different people and organizations during future volcano emergencies at local, state, and national levels. Many lessons were shared from direct experience during volcano emergencies and disasters in the past quarter century and from other recent natural disasters.

A central theme raised by several participants is that expanded volcano-monitoring capability to detect and warn of escalating unrest and eruption must be accompanied by better community preparation, education, and action in areas that will be affected by volcanic activity. As one speaker said, "All emergencies are essentially local emergencies."

A better volcano monitoring and notification capability will only save lives or property when communities also develop response plans - and test them! - and when individuals are prepared to take action before an emergency strikes.

This is not a new theme to scientists of the U.S. volcano observatories, but a sober reminder that our future technological improvements in monitoring systems, analytical capability, and information delivery must be matched by improvements in our participation in community education and response planning.

According to one experienced emergency responder, "Five minutes before a party is not the time to learn to dance."

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Volcano Activity Update

Activity at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano has remained at a moderate level. Frequent earthquakes continue beneath the upper east rift zone of Kīlauea, between Lua Manu and Pauahi Craters. Earthquakes have also resumed beneath the Namakani Paio campground/Kipauka Puaulu area. Inflation of the summit caldera continues at the accelerated rate started on January 12.

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow is visible from several vents within the crater and on the southwest side of the cone. Lava continues to flow through the PKK lava tube from its source on the flank of Pu`u `O`o to the ocean, with occasional surface flows breaking out of the tube. In the past week, surface flows were intermittently active at the 2,300-ft elevation and on the coastal plain near Paliuli, 6 km (3.7 mi) from the end of Chain of Craters Road.

As of March 2, lava is entering the ocean at East Lae`apuki, in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. The active lava bench continues to grow following the major collapse of November 28 and is now approximately 900 m long by 200 m wide. Access to the ocean entry and the surrounding area remains closed, due to significant hazards. If you visit the eruption site, check with the rangers for current updates, and remember to carry lots of water when venturing out onto the flow field.

There were eight earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island reported felt within the past week. The first three occurred on Wednesday, February 22, between 11:17 and 11:45 a.m. and were located near Namakani Paio campground 5 km (3 miles) west of Kīlauea summit. These quakes had magnitudes between 2.6 and 2.8 and were located at depths between 6 km ((4 miles) and 8 km (5 miles). A magnitude-2.0 earthquake occurred at 1:38 p.m. on Thursday, February 23, and was located 5 km (3 miles) south of Volcano at a depth of 4 km (2 miles). The most recent four occurred on Wednesday, March 1, and were again located near Namakani Paio campground 5 km (3 miles) west of Kīlauea summit at depths between 5 and 6 km (3 to 4 miles). A magnitude-2.6 occurred at 3:35 a.m., a magnitude-2.1 occurred at 4.58 a.m., a magnitude-4.0 occurred at 8:57 a.m., and a magnitude 3.1 occurred at 8:59 a.m.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, earthquake activity remained low beneath the volcano's summit. Inflation continues, but at a rate that has slowed since early October 2005.