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In September 2004, USGS scientists detected sudden, but unmistakable, signs that Mount St. Helens was waking up. Volcano monitors had picked up the occurrence of hundreds of small earthquakes and other signals that the volcano’s crater floor had begun to rise. Within a week, several eruptions blasted clouds of ash into the atmosphere, and soon after, a new lava dome emerged in the crate

Ash plume and crater rim at Mount St. Helens, October 2004, aerial ...
Explosions of ash from Mount St. Helens, like this one from October 5, 2004, had local residents worried that a larger eruption might occur (Credit: Steve Schilling, USGS).

But as volcanic activity escalated, it became clear to scientists at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) that the 20-year-old equipment and monitoring network capabilities were insufficient to properly forecast possibly severe eruptive activity. During the eruption, USGS CVO scientists grew increasingly concerned as ground shaking caused seismic signals to go off the scale on the outdated seismometers. Additionally, only one of the two continuously recording GPS receivers was operational. Had there been a half dozen or more GPS receivers installed around the volcano, scientists would have been able to triangulate the location of magma and develop models that showed the location and volume of magma over time.

Scientists scrambled to borrow and install modern instruments and create new technologies on-the-fly, but they were dismayed to discover that the old system used for transmitting data was not compatible with the more modern borrowed equipment. Under the scrutiny of intense worldwide media interest, the USGS was playing catch-up with the volcano while a potentially hazardous situation unfolded. Being ill-equipped to forecast volcano hazards, especially in the midst of a crisis, is risky business. Something needed to be done to avoid this situation in the future.


Assessing the country’s volcano hazards was the first step

Volcanologists at the five USGS volcano observatories across the nation worked together to assess what was critically needed to fulfill the USGS’s mandate to properly forecast volcano hazards and to reduce their impacts on communities, people, and infrastructure. By 2005, scientists examined the hazards posed by the nation’s volcanoes and ranked their relative threat level. Through this effort, scientists discovered that two-thirds of the country’s active volcanoes were insufficiently monitored, including most in the moderate- to very high-threat categories. This volcano threat assessment showed that the USGS lacked the data necessary to make timely forecasts and to issue warnings to people and communities.

In 2018, the USGS released an updated National Volcano Threat Assessment for the United States that showed 18 U.S. volcanoes are ranked as very high-threat, 39 are high-threat, and 51 are moderate-threat. The volcanoes are all located in states west of the Rocky Mountains, including in Alaska and Hawaii. The threat assessment helps guide decisions about how to strengthen volcano monitoring networks and bolster hazard preparedness and emergency response.

volcano threat
Infographic showing volcanic threats in the United States (Credit: USGS Report SIR 2018-5140 "2018 update to the U.S. Geological Survey national volcanic threat assessment")

Enter the “new” National Volcano Early Warning System

volcano monitoring
The USGS measures the activity level of a volcano with several different types of instruments. This graphic represents types of volcano monitoring in the corners, with associated methods used in italics (Credit: Lisa Faust, USGS).

In March 2019, Congress passed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (PL 116-9/S.47). Section 5001 of the bill authorized the USGS to establish a National Volcano Early Warning System, or NVEWS. The system has been designed to “monitor, warn, and protect citizens of the United States from undue and avoidable harm from volcanic activity.” With NVEWS in place, scientists will be able to make sure all dangerous U.S. volcanoes are monitored at levels consistent with the threat that they pose to communities, infrastructure, and aviation.

“Improvements to volcano monitoring networks allow the USGS to detect volcanic unrest at the earliest possible stage,” says Tom Murray, the USGS Volcano Science Center director. “This provides more time to issue forecasts and warnings of hazardous volcanic activity and gives at-risk communities more time to prepare.”

What specifically is included with NVEWS? First, it lays the foundation for the USGS to modernize and expand volcano monitoring networks nationwide to help keep people and communities safer by providing warnings and forecasts before dangerous volcanic events occur. The volcano observatories plan to employ broadband seismometers, infrasound arrays, real-time continuous GPS receivers, streaming and near-real-time webcams, and real-time volcanic gas sensors, plus satellite imagery and other remote-sensing techniques. Additionally, new networks will be installed on under-monitored, but high-risk volcanoes such as Mount Baker in Washington. Standardized digital telemetry systems will tie the networks together and make data communication consistent across all observatories.

When fully implemented, NVEWS will be an effective nationwide volcano-monitoring and hazard-warning system that will quickly and accurately identify volcanic events and deliver actionable information to people so that they can be better prepared. Monitoring stations with multiple instruments are planned for the nation’s high- and very high-threat volcanoes.


Better data leads to better research

Monitoring enclosure at Newberry volcano, Oregon, with internal mon...
Modern equipment (pictured here) allowed the USGS and its partners to find evidence of magma only 2-3 miles deep beneath the surface of Newberry Volcano, revealing the need to make the volcano a priority for enhanced monitoring (Credit: Ben Pauk, USGS).

A specific example of where new volcano monitoring has led to new discoveries is at Newberry Volcano in central Oregon. The Newberry Volcano was thought to have the fewest number of earthquakes of all monitored volcanoes in the Cascade Range. Then in 2011, USGS scientists installed 8 new real-time seismic and deformation stations. Before this major monitoring-network upgrade, Newberry had one operational seismic station that was installed in 1987. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), a scientific partner that monitors earthquakes in the Cascades, had detected only 7 earthquakes within 12 miles of the caldera in 24 years. Since 2011, PNSN has detected an average of 10 to 15 earthquakes per year within the caldera. This increase reflects the improved detection and location capabilities of the enhanced Newberry network. The USGS has used the upgraded seismic instrumentation to detect two types of earthquakes that prove Newberry has both active magmatic and hydrothermal systems.

Unsurprisingly, robust volcano monitoring networks produce large amounts of data. As such, NVEWS authorizes the development of a data center to store, process, analyze, and share large amounts of volcanic data. USGS and science partners will use these newly collected data to conduct extensive and innovative volcanic research like never before. The results will help to decipher early eruption signs and determine how volcanic hazards might impact communities.

NVEWS also authorizes the USGS Volcano Hazards Program to establish and administer external grants to fund research on volcanic hazards and risk mitigation. This authority recognizes the strong research capabilities of scientific partners outside of the USGS. These collaborations will infuse innovation into the important work of monitoring and assessing hazards at U.S. volcanoes.


NVEWS will reduce community vulnerability

In 2018, a fissure erupted on Kīlauea volcano, sending a fountain of molten rock into the air and a river of lava flowing across the island surface into the ocean. (Credit: USGS)

The USGS and its partners have been proactive in developing volcano emergency response plans with those populations exposed to volcanic hazards. NVEWS builds upon the current level of community outreach with an authorization to create modern and evolving information delivery systems so that vulnerable populations can readily find and understand the information they need to remain safe during volcanic crises. More than a network of instruments, NVEWS connects the monitoring and research efforts of scientists to emergency managers and the public at large.


Kīlauea volcano showcased how better research leads to more reliable eruption forecasting

Kīlauea is one of the best-monitored volcanoes in the country. Although there are still instrumentation gaps that need to be filled, its monitoring network detected massive subsidence of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō Crater on April 30, 2018, followed by a string of earthquakes that marched eastward along the volcano’s lower East Rift Zone. USGS scientists immediately began 24-hour-a-day surveillance and communicated scientific findings and potential risks to Hawai‘i County safety officials. When the lava erupted from the ground in Leilani Estates, residents were prepared. During the course of the months-long eruption 700 structures were destroyed, but there were few serious injuries and no direct fatalities.

As was demonstrated by the summer 2018 Kīlauea eruption, continuous monitoring is a critical next step to producing reliable hazard forecasts. Throughout the crisis, strengths were leveraged amongst all five USGS volcano observatories, including borrowing staff, sharing expertise, and employing virtual monitoring capabilities. NVEWS authorizes the establishment of a volcano watch office that will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This enhancement will enable all the volcano observatories to work together more cohesively to provide forecasts, alerts, and information on volcanic activity throughout the United States.

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