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September 8, 2020

Disasters and emergencies can happen at any time, often without warning. Natural hazards threaten thousands of lives and cause billions of dollars in damage every year throughout the nation. 

volcano threat
The U.S. Is one of the Earth's most volcanically active countries. Infographic from 2018 update to the U.S. Geological Survey national volcanic threat assessment.

Each September, National Preparedness Month marks a time to think about individual and community disaster and emergency planning. This year’s theme is “Disasters Don’t Wait. Make Your Plan Today.” For the U.S. Geological Survey, it is a perfect time to talk about the National Volcano Early Warning System improvements to the volcano monitoring program, and the steps you can take to prepare for a potential eruption. 

We have witnessed many kinds of destructive phenomena at U.S. volcanoes: hot, fluid lava flows that overrun communities; powerful explosions that devastated huge tracts of forest; choking debris avalanches and mudflows that destroy bridges and homes; noxious gas emissions that impact human health; airborne ash clouds that damage aircraft; and ash falls that cause agricultural losses and disrupt the lives and businesses of hundreds of thousands of people. 

Fortunately, volcanoes exhibit multiple indications of unrest that can, if detected early, warn of potential eruptions. To help monitor, warn about and safeguard people from volcanic dangers, President Trump signed the Dingell Act, authorizing the USGS to establish the National Volcano Early Warning System. When NVEWS is fully implemented, all hazardous volcanoes in the United States will be monitored commensurate with the threat they pose to communities, infrastructure and aviation.  

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.

NVEWS will integrate existing volcano monitoring systems and incorporate emerging technologies, such as modern seismometers; ground-based as well as airborne and satellite-based instruments for measuring ground deformation; acoustic sensors for detecting explosions; and real-time gas-measuring equipment. These improvements will furnish far more information than previously possible and will require new IT systems to process, assess and deliver warnings of impending volcanic activity. 

The end result will be the ability to vastly improve the nation’s 24/7 monitoring of volcanoes. Monitoring and successfully interpreting these indicators allow the USGS to much more rapidly distribute forecasts and data to land managers, scientists, responding agencies and the public to help minimize loss of life and economic disruption. Accurate forecasting also provides land and emergency management agencies and aviation authorities enough time to issue warnings and prepare effective responses to an impending eruption. 

Video Transcript
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are part of a 24 hour watch during the ongoing eruption on the lower east rift zone of the Kīlauea Volcano. Working in shifts they keep an eye on where the lava activity is and where it might move to. 

The benefits of enhanced monitoring and community engagement were clearly demonstrated during the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea Volcano in Hawai‘i. The eruption lasted 107 days and ranks as one of the costliest volcanic disasters in U.S. history. As the eruption progressed, a total of 24 fissures opened along the Lower East Rift Zone covering 58 miles of road, causing about $28 million in farm losses, and destroying more than 700 homes and dozens of larger structures. The lava flow devastated surrounding communities, forcing 2,500 people to evacuate their homes. But despite all the dangers and damage, there were no fatalities on the island, even though the lava erupted in the middle of a rural subdivision.  USGS scientists had been tracking changes at the volcano and issuing alerts. As fissures opened, scientific teams assessed hazards 24/7 and communicated risks in real-time to Hawai‘i County officials and the public so everyone could make informed decisions. 

During this September’s National Preparedness Month, communities and individuals can minimize loss of life and property by making basic preparations now. To understand your volcano hazard risk, use the USGS interactive map to identify active volcanoes where you live, work or recreate. Learn about the potential hazards at these volcanoes and sign up for the Volcano Notification Service to receive email information and alerts. Ask your local officials about emergency planning efforts and evacuation routes. Finally, prepare your household and business as you would for any emergency and educate and encourage your neighbors and friends to do the same.