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In February, 100 scientists got together to practice coordinating themselves during a pretend volcanic eruption.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Wendy Stovall, volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Deputy Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.  

As scientists who work on potentially active volcanoes, we ask ourselves "what" questions a lot. What if a volcano starts showing signs that it's waking up? What sort of eruption might happen at a given volcano?  What types of hazards might result from an eruption? Pondering such questions and the depths of possible answers always lead to further questions, then answers, then ultimately more questions, and on and on. One of the ways that we examine these questions is to gather a group of scientists pondering the same thing and pretend it is happening. That's right – we roll play a volcanic event! This practice helps us create plans and be better prepared to respond to an actual volcanic event.

cinder cone with blue sky and fluffy clouds.
Eruptions between 1064 and 1067 AD at Sunset Crater, Arizona, produced three lava flows that covered 8 square km2 (3 square mi) and a field of scoria and spatter that covers 2300 square km (890 square mi). Archeological evidence shows that there were communities of people living in the area who were impacted by the eruption.

For the month of February 2022, we did just this. A group of about 100 scientists representing 40 different institutions participated in a roleplaying scenario of a volcanic eruption. The fake eruption was in northern Arizona’s San Francisco Volcanic Field (SFVF), which one day could erupt in real life – although there is no sign of any volcanic unrest in the area right now.  

This scenario was the second of its kind hosted by the NSF-funded Community Network for Volcanic Eruption Response (CONVERSE). This group of researchers aim to enable, organize, and focus the collaboration of academic researchers and U.S. federal agencies involved in volcano science.  

A team of eight scientists from different disciplines, like seismology, geology, and gas geochemistry, organized the scenario. The organizational team shared with the scenario participants volcano monitoring data (earthquake locations, ground surface motions, and volcanic gas measurements) and “official” volcanic activity notifications from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO is responsible for monitoring and reporting on volcanic activity in the southwest U.S.). In effect, the organizers were the "dungeon masters," and the participating scientists played roles closely aligned with what they would do in an actual volcanic eruption. 

To make it realistic, the organization team had to conceptualize the rise of magma from deep within the earth to the surface. Organizers looked to the long-extinct 3–4-million-year-old San Rafael volcanic field located in southern Utah. The upper 2625 feet (800 meters) of the once subterranean volcanic plumbing system is visible today in the form of eroded dikes, sills, and volcanic conduits. Several researchers (including one of the scenario organizers) have used this geologic evidence to piece together the region's eruption history, which fed into the design of the SFVF scenario.  

Ash plume from Paracutin Volcano, Mexico, sometime during 1946-1948
An ash plume rises from the summit crater of Parícutin, Mexico, sometime during 1946-48. A thick ash deposit covers the foreground. An estimated 4,500 cattle and 550 horses died during the heavy ashfall in the early months of the eruption, devastating the local people who depended on the animals for food, plowing, and transportation. Ashfall was deeper than 6 inches (15 cm) over a 115 square mile (300 square kilometer) area around the volcano and continued with varying intensity throughout the 9-year-long eruption.  Photo by Ray Wilcox (U.S. Geological Survey).

With an analog volcano lined up, it was up to the geologists, geophysics, and gas geochemists of the organizer group to invent realistic datasets that would precede the pretend eruption. They relied upon actual data from similar eruptions, such as Parícutin (Mexico), La Palma (Canary Islands), Kīlauea (Hawaiʻi), and Fagradalsfjall (Iceland). Some of the organizers took these data and developed mathematical models of ground movement and lava flow areas, which were provided to the participants as the scenario progressed. 

The entire group communicated in a collaborative virtual workspace and participated in two video conference calls each week. Pretend seismometers, GPS stations, gas sensors, and video surveillance equipment were “installed” in the “field.” Scientists planned fake sample collection campaigns and flew phony UAS video and gas monitoring instruments. Real, "what if" conversations were held between state, federal, and academic groups. Overall, it strengthened bonds between the community of scientists who might respond to future volcanic eruptions in the United States.  

Scenarios like this allow scientists to practice working together, ensuring volcanic behavior is well documented while keeping people safe. Specifically, the USGS is mandated by the U.S. federal government to keep watch over the nation’s volcanoes and monitor hazards, then issue warnings to reduce the societal impacts of volcanic eruptions. Scientific researchers from academic and other institutions can bring unique perspectives to better understanding volcanic activity, aiding USGS scientists and land managers in the hazards response to an eruption. Because safety is a foremost concern, emphasis is placed on solid communication and coordination between all parties involved in observing, researching, and forecasting volcanic behavior.  

Ultimately, the outcomes of this scenario will inform a new Yellowstone Volcano Observatory volcanic eruption response plan specifically for the Southwest U.S. volcanic fields located in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.  

So, why was San Francisco Volcanic Field chosen? The SFVF is one of the youngest of the many volcanic fields spread throughout the western United States, and it is relatively well studied. There’s a significant population center on its border (Flagstaff), and there will likely be eruptions from the area again. The 1085 A.D. eruption of Sunset Crater was the most recent volcanic event from the San Francisco Volcanic Field, and the eruption impacted indigenous people of the region.  

The coordination of scientists will yield a more complete understanding of volcanic processes and their hazards, while also aiding efforts to reduce the impacts of volcanic eruptions on society. 

You can read more about the CONVERSE group and the February 2022 scenario at https://volcanoresponse.org/

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