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Before the current network of USGS volcano observatories existed, the USGS Volcano Hazards Program grew primarily out of two existing entities:  the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the Geothermal Research Program. 

The California Volcano Monitor is a new effort to spotlight the research and the stories behind California’s volcanic regions and CalVO history, with monthly articles written by our scientists in the style of the Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles and HVO’s Volcano Watch. This month’s contribution is by Patrick Muffler, a CalVO emeritus scientist whose research has included mapping geyser basins in Yellowstone, geologic mapping of the southernmost Cascade Range of the western United States, and studies of active hydrothermal metamorphism in the Salton Sea geothermal system in southern California.

Before the current network of USGS volcano observatories existed, the USGS Volcano Hazards Program grew primarily out of two existing entities:  the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the Geothermal Research Program. HVO had existed for decades, but as an underfunded, minor appendage of USGS overall activities.  The Geothermal Research Program started in 1974 with an explosion of funding owing to the 1973 energy crisis (remember the lines at gas stations?).  Its principal objectives were to characterize all types of geothermal systems, to map their distribution, and to assess their potential as sources of thermal energy. This complemented the Department of Energy’s role in the Federal Geothermal Program, which was to study those sources and develop new technology for geothermal energy production. Geothermal research in the USGS went from $500,000 per year to $12,000,000 in just two years.  This increased funding allowed us to experiment with a wide variety of untested geophysical and geochemical tools, and most importantly it brought into geothermal research numerous young, energetic scientists, both existing USGS employees and new hires. 

A steam plume rises from a tube in a sandy patch of desert. Several trucks are parked around it and two F18 jets fly overhead
F-18 with the Coso Geothermal Field discovery Well (credit: Navy Geothermal Program Office)

As the first Coordinator of the Geothermal Research Program, it was my responsibility to fund and guide not only activities in my home branch (then Field Geochemistry and Petrology), but to fund and guide geothermal research and monitoring activities in various other entities, most notably in the various earthquake branches in Menlo Park, the regional geophysics branch in Denver, the Experimental Geochemistry and Mineralogy Branch in Reston and Menlo Park, and Water Resources Division.  This included the geothermal work of seismologists, heat-flow scientists, geophysicists, geochemists, and hydrologic modelers. A fundamental assumption of work in the Geothermal Research Program was that high-temperature geothermal systems were associated with subsurface intrusive bodies at major volcanoes.  A boiling kettle needed a hotplate beneath it!  Accordingly, we focused a lot of initial effort on two “type” examples of hot-water and vapor-dominated systems, Long Valley and The Geysers/Clear Lake.  The work addressed not just the hydrothermal systems, but more importantly the underlying igneous systems and  geophysical attempts to identify and characterize these igneous heat sources at depth.  These efforts were subsequently expanded to other volcano/hydrothermal systems, such as Coso, Medicine Lake, and Crater Lake, as well as reconnaissance efforts elsewhere in the Cascades and throughout the west. 

The subsequent combination of the volcano observatories and the Geothermal Research Program into the Volcano Hazards Program resulted, however, from the intense interest in volcanoes following the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.  Bob Tilling, then Chief of the Office of Geochemistry and Geophysics in Reston, led the effort to establish and fund the new Volcano Hazards Program (VHP). 

Graph showing volcanoes on the Y axis and time on the X axis with periods of volcanic unrest or eruptions indicated by points
Volcanoes have been erupting in the Cascade Range for over 500,000 years. During the past 4,000 years eruptions have occurred at an average rate of about 2 per century. This chart shows 13 volcanoes on a map of Washington, Oregon, and northern California and time lines for each showing the ages of their eruptions.

 This new program fulfilled a national need for information about potential hazards from volcanic eruptions, including monitoring, volcanological research, geologic mapping, hazard assessments, crisis response, hazard communication, and international collaborative research and response work at foreign volcanoes (later the purview of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program starting in 1986).VHP took on responsibility for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, started the Cascades Volcano Observatory, and incorporated various aspects of the former Geothermal Research Program. The Alaska Volcano Observatory was a later addition after the Office of Geochemistry and Geophysics was dissolved and volcano/geothermal studies came under the Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering.  Finally, the Yellowstone and California Volcano Observatories are very recent additions based on projects in the Volcano Science Center. (See last month’s post to learn more about the history of CalVO!) 

For further reading on the history of the Geothermal Research Program, try this 1982 circular: “The Geothermal Research Program of the U.S. Geological Survey”

To read the original plans for the Volcano Hazards Program, check out this 1983 report: “The Volcano Hazards Program; objectives and long-range plans”