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USGS to Help Chile Develop Volcano Early Warning System

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Listen to an interview with USGS scientists John Pallister, John Ewert and Andy Lockhart describing their efforts to help the government of Chile establish real-time monitoring and provide warning of further eruptions of the Chaitén volcano.




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Clarice Ransom: Welcome, and thanks for listening to USGS CoreCast. I’m Clarice Nassif Ransom. On May second, Chaitén Volcano in Southern Chile erupted for the first time in over 9,000 years. More than 5,000 people were evacuated from their homes. USGS scientists arrived on the scene to help Chilean scientists monitor the volcano and provide real-time warning of further eruptions. On June 13th, President Bachelet of Chile met with USGS scientists in San Francisco to thank them for their efforts. She also wanted to learn more about how to mitigate volcano risks.

We are here with USGS scientist John Pallister, John Ewert and Andy Lockhart to hear more about USGS’s role in helping Chile. Thank you for joining us. Tell me a little bit more about what USGS scientists did in Chile regarding the eruption of the Chaitén Volcano.00:54

Andy Lockhart: Well, this is Andy Lockhart. We got down to Chile about two weeks after the volcano had erupted. The purpose was to add real-time seismic monitoring to the monitoring that the Chileans were already doing. Because they were not getting real-time monitoring. That was what they’d asked us to provide. So we installed two different networks of seismic monitoring stations down there to get data in real-time.

John Ewert: Now this is John Ewert. There was virtually no instrumental monitoring of Chaitén prior to the eruption. Without the monitoring, people nearby who are at risk have almost no time to prepare themselves, their families and possessions for what may be some life-altering event.

Clarice Ransom: What is the current situation at the Chaitén Volcano?

Andy Lockhart: Well right now, the volcano is building a dome at a pretty spectacular rate. It is putting out a plume, sort of ashy steam, up to maybe 15,000 feet and there’s a very fine ash that’s being distributed downwind from the volcano. And lahars from the deposits from the last couple of weeks are continuing to flow through the town of Chaitén , which was evacuated early on.01:55

A lahar is basically a river full of mud and debris that washes down off of a volcano after an eruption has deposited ash on the hillside, within the valleys. There is seismicity, it's very slight. There has been an up-kick in activity as of about June 12th.

Clarice Ransom: Are there any specific volcanoes, here in the US, that are popular that pose that kind of threat?

John Ewert: Crater Lake is high on our list of volcanoes to have monitoring installed. We hope to have a couple of sensors installed at Crater Lake this year. At the present time, there is no monitoring at Crater Lake. Other volcanoes in the Cascades that are critically under-monitored would be Glacier Peak or Mount Baker in Washington State.

Clarice Ransom: Is there a volcano here in the United States that would compare to the Chaitén Volcano?

John Ewert: The Medicine Lake Volcano in Northern California. Newberry Volcano in Central Oregon may be the best analogue that we have.

Clarice Ransom: What will the US Geological Survey be doing in the future to exchange scientific information about volcanoes with the Chilean Government?02:53

John Pallister: John Pallister here. We actually signed a letter of intent for collaboration with the Chileans in four areas for collaboration. The first of those is helping them develop a national volcano early warning system, much like the one that we have to be developed in the United States. The second is help in the volcano hazards analysis and investment. Doing the kinds of background studies of volcanoes that help you know what they’re going to do in the future based on what they did in the past.

Third item is volcano crisis response, exactly what was done at Chaitén to be done at other volcanoes in Chile, and for that matter in other countries in Latin America. And then finally, scientific studies of volcanoes, including case studies. We’re thinking and planning on doing a follow-up to the eruption of the Chaitén when conditions of the volcano allow to go in and understand better how an unusual eruption like this had taken place, what causes it and what it portends for the future.

Clarice Ransom: Now you mentioned the national volcano early warning system. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What was developed here in the United States and how Chile is using it as the best practice in their country?03:53

John Ewert: Yeah, this is John Ewert. In 2005, the USGS completed a systematic national assessment of volcanic threats for volcanoes in the United States. And this was part of an initiative to create a national volcano early warning system. Our counterparts have adapted the NVEWS Threat Assessment methodology to prioritize their volcanoes for monitoring and threat assessment just as we have here.

Right at the moment, they have one volcano observatory and they have approximately 7 volcanoes with some monitoring on them. They have over a hundred and twenty active volcanoes in Chile, most of which are unmonitored and they would like to improve that situation.

In the United States, we have 169 or 170 volcanoes, depending on how you want to count them. And less than a third of those are anywhere near adequately monitored. So we face a lot of the same challenges in the US and Chile in terms of the large numbers of hazardous volcanoes that we have to deal with.

Clarice Ransom: Tell me a little bit about the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program and how our scientists help with volcano monitoring and warning worldwide.04:59

John Pallister: John Pallister here again. VDAP or Volcano Disaster Assistance Program is a 22-year partnership between USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the USGS. We respond to volcanoes around the world. And just in the last few years have responsed to an order of a dozen different eruptions in different parts of the world. We also of course conduct scientific exchange between different agencies. And fundamentally, we build friendships with our colleagues and partners around the world and together as a group. And we’re able to better mitigate these potentially dangerous events.

Clarice Ransom: Is there anything that I forgot to ask that any of you would like to add?

John Pallister: One thing that’s briefing for President Bachelet was very unusual to be able to address the head of state another country. And I must say that she had already been well informed by our colleagues at Ceramine. She had already visited the volcano, she knew the situation. She’s concerned about the people living in the town of Chaitén, and asked what to do about the situation there.05:57

So she had very big questions. She even asked us technical questions about the character of the earthquake. It was really quite an amazing briefing that we were privileged and honored to be asked to give.

Andy Lockhart: There is one thing, this is Andy again, on things that we’ve learned from this volcano, a violent eruption is coming out very fast. It’s also coming out making very little noise. There’s almost no seismicity associated with it, of the type that we expected, dome building eruptions at other volcanoes, like Mount St. Helen. And when we got the instrumentation installed, we were pretty surprised to see how quietly all this magma is moving to the surface. It’ll be interesting to see how that gets unraveled.06:35Clarice Ransom: John, Andy and John, thanks again for joining us. And thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of CoreCast. You can find out more information about the USGS Volcano Hazards Program at CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey Department of the Interior. Until next time, I’m Clarice Nassif Ransom.

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