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Statement for the Record, U.S. Geological Survey

May 18, 2011

Before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests on S. 566, to provide for the establishment of the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System.









May 18, 2011


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to provide the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 566, “to provide for the establishment of the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System.” This opportunity arises on the 31st anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which claimed 57 lives and destroyed more than 200 square miles of forest, much of it on public lands. The Department strongly supports the goals of the bill to enhance volcano monitoring and eruption response in the United States and would like to thank the Committee for its work.  We note, however, that the activities called for in this bill are within the scope of existing Department of the Interior authorities, and already underway at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The USGS operates a system of five volcano observatories for the purpose of reducing loss of life and property and minimizing social and economic disruptions during volcanic eruptions and their often protracted precursory phases. The USGS does this under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288, popularly known as the Stafford Act) as the lead Federal agency with responsibility to provide notification for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides to enhance public safety and to minimize economic losses through timely forecasts and warnings based on the best possible scientific information.

U.S. Volcanic Hazards and USGS Capabilities

The United States ranks as one of the top countries in the world in the number of active and potentially active volcanoes.  Over the past three decades, 30 U.S. volcanoes have erupted on nearly 100 occasions, and an additional dozen volcanoes have exhibited periods of anomalous activity, unrest, that initially were worrisome but ultimately did not culminate in eruptions. In many respects, the country has been fortunate, because only the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 was large enough and close enough to communities to cause significant losses of life and property. Major eruptions would seem more common if the written history of our volcanic areas were not so short. The challenge is to be fully prepared for the next major event, wherever it may occur, as well as the smaller but much more common events that exact a continuing cost on human activities. We are not now fully prepared, a challenge that S.566 would help us to overcome.

Volcanoes produce many kinds of destructive phenomena.  Communities near Mount St. Helens in Washington were exposed to powerful explosions and mud flows. Substantial populations live on geologically recent mud flows from Mount Hood, Oregon and Mount Rainier, Washington. In Hawaii, Kilauea volcano has sent lava flows into residential communities. Noxious gas emissions have damaged agriculture and required closure of large areas of public lands downwind of the volcano. Critical highway arteries and major resort areas are located on and near massive young lava flows from Mauna Loa volcano. Ash eruptions of the type expected from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska volcanoes will endanger aircraft and, if fallout is heavy, interfere with transportation, power generation, and water supply on the ground.

Although many U.S. volcanoes are located on sparsely populated Federal lands, the threat to communities and infrastruc­ture downstream and to aviation downwind nevertheless drives the need to properly monitor volcanic activity and provide forecasts and notifications of expected hazards.  The most recent example of a remote volcano inflicting economic damage is the 2009 eruption of Mt. Redoubt, Alaska that disrupted civilian and military aviation operations with ash for more than a week and inundated an oil loading terminal with mud flows, thereby requiring suspension of oil and gas production in Cook Inlet. Without proper monitoring by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, interruption of air travel would have been greater and loss of life at the oil terminal might have occurred.

Hazardous volcanic activity will continue to happen, and the ongoing exposure of human life and enterprise will continue to be a primary consideration driving USGS volcano monitoring efforts.  Fortunately, volcanoes exhibit precursory unrest that if detected and analyzed quickly allows eruptions to be anticipated and communities at risk to be forewarned with sufficient time to implement response plans and mitigation measures. Careful monitoring of volcanoes, timely and credible eruption warnings delivered following pre-established protocols, and strong cooperation among federal agencies and the aviation industry have thus far prevented the kind of aviation crisis that gripped Europe in April 2010 during the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland and resulted in global aviation sector losses of $2.6 billion with 7 million passengers affected.

Monitoring volcanic activity in the United States is the responsibility of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program and is accomplished by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Cascades Volcano Observatory, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Long Valley Observatory, and Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.  To make maximum use of the Nation’s scientific resources, the USGS operates the observatories with the help of universities and Federal and State agencies, through formal partnerships.  With the exception of the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, which was founded in 1912, U.S. volcano observatories have been established in response to specific eruptions or sustained levels of unrest.  For example, the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Washington State was established in 1981, following the catastrophic awakening of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and continues to assess and monitor volcanic hazards in the Pacific Northwest.  The Alaska Volcano Observatory was established in 1988 following an eruption of Augustine Volcano in Cook Inlet, just in time to deal with the eruption of Redoubt Volcano in 1989-1990.

The USGS Volcano Hazards Program also maintains an international rapid-response team under the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), co-funded by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance within the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  This team responds to emergencies worldwide when called upon by the U.S. Department of State and also works to build volcano observatory infrastructure in other countries that are subject to volcanic disasters.  Through VDAP, the USGS gains experience with a broad spectrum of volcano behavior and participates in disaster response and mitigation activities in a variety of physical and cultural settings, all of which inform and improve our domestic volcano-response capabilities. The USGS plan for future improvement of monitoring and hazard communication depends heavily on this international experience.

The USGS works closely with other Federal agencies that contribute to volcano monitoring.  Geophysical instrumentation funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the EarthScope Program has supplemented USGS networks at volcanoes, and in turn NSF-supported infrastructure now makes USGS volcano monitoring data more readily available to the scientific community.  Satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provide important global remote-sensing data that can reveal volcanic hot spots, ash clouds, and gas clouds and are used by the volcano observatories to complement ground-based networks. (Only ground-based networks can provide forecasting capability.) The USGS also works closely with NOAA’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers in Washington DC and in Anchorage, Alaska, which track the dispersion of volcanic-ash clouds hazardous to aircraft and disseminate advisories to the Federal Aviation Administration and commercial and military aircraft.  The Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, with which the USGS has been a longtime collaborator, supports volcano monitoring activities by maintaining a comprehensive database on the eruptive histories of volcanoes throughout the world, providing data that are critical to forecasting the likely future activity of restless volcanoes.

Rationale for a National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System

We have learned from hard experience that waiting to deploy a robust monitoring effort until a hazardous volcano awakens forces scientists, civil authorities, businesses, and citizens to play “catch up” with the volcano, trying to get instruments and civil-defense measures in place before the situation worsens.  Precious time and data are lost in the days or weeks it can take to deploy a response to a reawakening volcano – time and data that the public needs to prepare for the hazards they may confront. The race to install instruments on Mount St. Helens under the difficult and dangerous late winter conditions of March and April 1980 remains a good example. 

Volcanoes do not need to erupt to cause problems. Changes in a volcano’s behavior that are noted by the local population—such as increased smell of sulfur gases, steaming at the summit, or felt earthquakes—may cause an over-reaction, especially if fueled by rumors of an imminent eruption.  This over-reaction may extend beyond the average citizen to businesses and government agencies. Without proper instrumentation installed on a volcano, it is difficult to ascertain whether activity is within the range of normal background behavior and thus of little concern or is precursory to a significant eruption.  In contrast, a well-instrumented volcano monitored by a local observatory coupled with an active program of community outreach can quickly replace rumors and speculation with sound scientific interpretation of the activity, thereby avoiding the social and economic disruption that an evacuation would produce. It follows therefore that all volcanoes capable of erupting should have in place a level of monitoring networks commensurate with the threat they pose to society.

In 2005 the USGS published “An Assessment of Volcanic Threat and Monitoring Capabilities in the United States: Framework for a National Volcano Early Warning System, NVEWS” ( The report is a comprehensive survey of installed instrumentation on the Nation’s volcanoes together with a rigorous ranking of volcanoes by threats posed to people and assets.  This made possible a “gap” analysis, defining the deficit in needed monitoring as measured by threat potential, including the threat to aviation from remote Alaskan and Marianas volcanoes, and existing monitoring. 

The 2005 threat and instrumentation assessment found that only about half of the hazardous volcanoes in the U.S. have even basic (several seismic stations) monitoring networks. The gap analysis provided the basis for prioritizing volcanoes where monitoring should be upgraded. The report also recommended a number of other steps beyond instrumentation improvements, including easier access to monitoring data, formal continuous 24/7 vigilance – not just during crises, improved hazard-information products for decision-makers and the public, enhanced collaboration between USGS and external researchers, and innovative outreach to help communities develop risk-wise practices. These elements form the comprehensive NVEWS framework, which has been adopted as the USGS approach for the future of volcano hazards reduction in “Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges - U.S. Geological Survey Science in the Decade 2007-2017” (USGS Circular 1309). 

After publication of the initial report in 2005, the USGS began to implement solutions to the most important issues identified in the recommendations. The $15.2 million in funding available for NVEWS  under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)  was used to modernize existing monitoring equipment at Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, at Anatahan and Sarigan volcanoes in the Northern Mariana Islands, at Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming, and at Spurr, Redoubt, and Augustine volcanoes of Cook Inlet, Alaska; the software and communication systems used to transmit data from monitoring networks also required modernization, especially in the Cascade Range of Washington, Oregon, and California.  Additionally, ARRA funds were used to produce high-resolution topographic maps (LiDAR) of volcanic areas in the Pacific Northwest that will greatly aid in development of volcanic risk mitigation plans by local communities. Grants to universities have improved our understanding of the inner workings of Alaska volcanoes and documented impacts from recent eruptions.

S.566 would authorize $15 million/year in additional funding to continue implementation of the NVEWS plan as the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System (NVEWMS).

 Elements of the National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) and National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System (NVEWMS)

1.Improved monitoring infrastructure – targeting the volcanoes that are significantly under-monitored for the threats posed. This will be done principally in Alaska, Hawaii, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, California, Washington, Oregon, and Wyoming.  In addition to installation of new networks and telemetry, out-dated patchwork monitoring systems will be modernized. The goal is to detect the rise of magma and assess the size of an impending eruption as early as possible.


2.Measures for reduced community vulnerability – supporting communities in developing plans for mitigating volcanic risk.  As with earthquakes, a key to risk mitigation is preparation. This means working with state and local partners to define high-risk areas and community vulnerabilities, creating new hazard-information tools and products, and continuing to build broad-based hazard awareness.


3.An external grants program – to engage the Nation’s broader scientific and natural hazards community in advancing volcano monitoring science and technology and the societal aspects of volcanic risk mitigation.  Volcanology is advancing rapidly both through growing understanding of volcanic processes and through advances in technology that make possible new kinds of observations. Many advances in understanding volcanic processes and advancing relevant technologies have occurred through the National Science Foundation’s research programs and through the efforts of USGS scientists. There is a need, however, to broadly engage the Nation’s scientific community in rapid application of these developments to volcano risk mitigation. This would be accomplished through a competitive, peer-reviewed grants process to support investigations complementary to but not duplicative of NSF-supported research.


4.Interoperability among U.S. volcano observatories in order to:

A) Provide full 24/7 Watch Operations as a backup for routine observatory monitoring and to provide situational awareness for partner federal agencies, including FAA, NOAA,  DHS/FEMA, and DOD, as well as state and  local agencies.

B) Establish a National Volcano Data Portal as a gateway for access to U.S. volcano data. The free exchange of data with the broader scientific community and availability to the public is fundamental to scientific advancement, risk mitigation, and government transparency. Within the USGS observatories, rapid access to historical volcano data system-wide, and eventually globally, informs eruption response.


The USGS will not carry out NVEWMS by itself but will build on its long record of successfully partnering with diverse groups that have expertise and data to share in the mission of helping people co-exist with dangerous volcanoes.  Our partners range from the international under the aegis of the International Civilian Aviation Organization, UNESCO, and GEO to national levels, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Air Force Weather Agency, NOAA, and the Federal Aviation Administration, to the regional and local scale with neighboring universities and state agencies that are part of the structure of the volcano observatories.


Key Outcomes of NVEWMS implementation

The key outcome of NVEWMS will be to strengthen the scientific contribution to volcano risk mitigation decisions.  Comprehensive monitoring of the Nation’s most hazardous volcanoes, coupled with greater understanding of volcanic processes, will improve forecasts of the onset, intensity, duration, and effects of expected hazards.  New hazard-information products and dissemination methods will be developed by close collaboration between scientists and users.  Timely and accurate warnings to en-route aircraft will help prevent dangerous encounters with volcanic ash while minimizing costly unnecessary rerouting of aircraft. 

Thus, civil authorities, businesses, and individuals at risk will have more time and better information to prepare, ensuring that their ability to respond will not lag behind the evolving behavior of a volcano.  Volcanic unrest does not always culminate in eruption, and long-term volcano monitoring will provide sound, ongoing, scientific information throughout episodes of unrest so that problems related to over-reacting or under-reacting will be minimized. 

More than a network of instruments, NVEWMS will connect the monitoring and research results of scientists to the needs of decision-makers at the national to local level, so that the impact of volcanic activity on the Nation is minimized


The USGS appreciates the Committee’s support for NVEWMS, which will strengthen our Nation’s ability to respond successfully to future volcanic activity. We note that the activities called for in S. 566 are authorized by existing authorities and are already underway at the USGS.  Any work conducted to fulfill the objectives of the bill would need to compete for funding with other Administration priorities.

Thank you for the opportunity to present the Department’s views on the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring Program Act.