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Public Lecture Sneak Peek: International Volcano Diplomacy

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‘International Volcano Diplomacy’ -- Rapid response team prevents crises from becoming disasters


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Amelia: Hello and Welcome to a sneak preview of our Western Region Evening Public Lecture for May 28th.  I'm Amelia Barrales and today we have on the line USGS Volcanologist and chief of VDAP John Pallister.

Thank you John for taking the time in talking to us about your upcoming lecture. 

John:  Thank you Amelia, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Amelia:   As I mentioned before, you’re a USGS volcanologist, but you are also Chief of VDAP. 

What does "VDAP" stand for?

John:  Well, VDAP the acronym V-D-A-P stands for the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. This is a 23-year partnership between the USGS & USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance also known as OFDA. 

It was formed in response to a 1985 disaster at Armero, Colombia when more than 20,000 people were buried and killed by volcanic mudflows from Ruiz disaster. The tragedy is that this is a preventable disaster and so after Ruiz, USGS and OFDA people got together and designed a program to prevent future disasters like that at Ruiz, and that is in effect VDAP.

Amelia:  But … how exactly do you prevent these disasters from happening?

John: Well let’s start with the broadest sense and the broadest sense we save lives and property, our mission is to save those lives and property and prevent volcano crises from becoming volcanic disasters. We do this through both rapid responses to international volcano crises and through training and capacity building projects with partners in foreign countries. We donate monitoring instruments to developing countries and we help them build their own volcano hazards programs. In effect we try to work ourselves out of business.  You might ask why USGS does this?

Well 1st VDAP has the same mission as our domestic volcano hazards program… Under the Stafford Act- USGS is responsible for monitoring volcanoes, forecasting eruptions and preventing volcano disasters -so, our domestic and international missions VDAP and volcano hazards programs are entirely complementary.

Amelia :  You used the phrase "International Volcano Diplomacy", I am curious about two things, when did the USGS start studying other volcanoes around the world? And what is "Volcano Diplomacy"? 

John: Well we started the formal program of studying volcanoes around the world in 1986, again after the Ruiz disaster, and just since 2003, we have conducted 52 projects and 20 volcanoes in 15 countries, and this includes more than a dozen international crisis responses.

Also through VDAP, we negotiate partnerships with foreign government agencies to work together to monitor volcanoes and respond to crises.  And in doing so, we build lasting friendships that transcend international borders and political boundaries, I feel this is the essence of diplomacy, so we can go on … I define “volcano diplomacy” as building international relationships with the shared humanitarian goal of preventing volcano disasters.

Recently our new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited our 1st Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in saying that “The interests of a nation when well understood will be found to coincide with their moral duties." I believe this is the case with VDAP.

Amelia: What has VDAP taught us about volcano hazards and volcano science, especially now with all the activity that has been going on with like Redoubt Volcano?

John: VDAP is a two-way street for our domestic program and for our international partners in terms of teaching and learning new methods to monitor unrest and in advancing the science of volcanology. So what we learn at Mount St. Helens we apply at Merapi, and what we learn at Pinatubo, Huila, and Tungurahua we apply at Long Valley,  Mt. Rainier, and Redoubt.

It is through eruptions that the science of volcano advances …of volcanology advances.  If I look back through our the history of our short … relatively young science major steps in our understanding of how volcanoes work came in the aftermaths of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo, the 1994 eruption of Rabaul…and even now we are planning a post-eruption study to learn from the 2008 eruption of Chaiten, Chile…. the historic first monitored eruption of a rhyolite caldera.

Amelia: Can you give me an example?

John: Ah sure, actually there is a long list, but I think foremost coming to mind of what we learned is that VDAP has played a major role in teaching us how to forecast eruptions.

Through VDAP, USGS scientists have had the opportunity to respond to dozens of eruptions around the world and in doing so; we have learned how to interpret the precursors to eruptions.  VDAP Seismologist Randy White, who is based there in Menlo Park, is probably the world’s best tactical volcano seismologist. In the past 5 years, while I have led the VDAP team, I’ve seen Randy accurately forecast about a  half-dozen eruptions. He has done this on the scene at the volcano, as well as remotely. And also importantly, I have seen him advise worried colleagues at restless foreign volcanoes when it is time to simply go home and get some rest, he said things like well “ just do that and go home, get some rest, it’s not going to erupt in the next few days”.

Amelia: Thank you so much John for this sneak preview, we look forward to your talk.

John: Well thanks again for inviting me. You know being part of VDAP is an immensely rewarding job I’m continuously impressed by my own USGS team’s talents and dedication, and indeed by the very same qualities in our counterparts around the world that we work with.

Amelia: If you are interested in learning more about John's upcoming lecture and to view any of our previous lectures, please visit our USGS Evening Public Lecture Series website at His video will be available online on at the end of the month for viewing.   Thank you for your interest in our Western Region Evening Public Lecture Series.   

This a production of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior. 

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