While millions of people all over the world will be letting out a well deserved sigh of profound relief that today has finally arrived, the scientifically cognisant among them are also anticipating all the ways that a Biden Administration is going to address science; specifically, how it is going to take science – its inherent value and importance, as well as its plethora of beneficial applications to society – out of the gutter it’s been unceremoniously dumped and left in for the last four years, hose it down and restore it to its rightful place in the pantheon of all-encompassing drivers of progress.
The current focus is on things like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, which is perfectly understandable. But something the Biden Administration should also dedicate some time to (when it gets the chance) push for a funding boost to America’s volcano monitoring efforts – because right now, volcanologists are not capable of properly listening to the heartbeats of many of America’s most hazardous volcanoes.
It’s fair to say that America has a decent volcano monitoring capability. Several of its volcanoes, including Wyoming’s Yellowstone, Washington’s Mount St. Helens and Hawai‘i’s Kīlauea – especially the latter, after its devastating monthslong eruption sequence in 2018 – have fairly comprehensive monitoring networks, featuring all sorts of seismic wave-listening, gas-sniffing, thermal anomaly-detecting equipment, instruments both stuck to the ground and attached to mechanical eyes orbiting high above. America also happens to have many of the world’s best volcanologists or volcano-centric researchers, a good proportion of which belong to the U.S. Geological Survey. This agency’s five volcano observatories, scattered across the country, keep a 24-hour watch on the nation’s active volcanoes (active, meaning they have erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years, suggesting they’re still capable of eruptions today).
But it’s important to note that plenty of these volcanoes either lack the suite of monitoring equipment they deserve or they have outdated tech on their flanks. In 2017, the Atlantic reported that many of the volcanoes in the Cascades, a volcanic spine running up western North America, have few sensors on them. Nearly half of the country’s active volcanoes lack proper seismometer coverage; seismometers detect the grumbles of moving magma prior to an eruption taking place, so being hard of hearing is an ailment that volcanologists could do without.
In 2019, the New York Times reported that a lot of the volcanoes in the Cascades aren’t being sufficiently monitored because of a surprising amount of red tape. Monitoring sites are frequently in wilderness areas, which means that getting permission to apply for land use changes, no matter how small, is quite the bureaucratic challenge. That year, I reported for Gizmodo that of the 57 American volcanoes that are considered to be the greatest risk to people, the U.S. Geological Survey is only 30-40% of the way to having a sufficient monitoring network for them.
America can’t afford to short-change or delay its volcano monitoring efforts. There’s little doubt that many of America’s 161 active volcanoes, a great many of which are near enough to sizeable human populations, will erupt again at some point in a variety of ways. That’s a problem, not least because the science of eruption prediction is in its infancy. Most volcanoes give some sort of warning days or weeks ahead of time, but no volcanologist can tell you if a volcano is definitely going to erupt, how it’s going to erupt and exactly when it will erupt. And those warnings will only be identified if the right amount and types of monitoring equipment is peppered over those volcanoes.
Mount St. Helens famously erupted *out of its side* back in May 1980, killing 57 people. Although one of those killed during the eruption, volcanologist David Johnston, mooted this as a possibility early on, the sheer ferocity, timing and magnitude of the lateral blast clearly surprised him. Even after that cataclysm, which awoke America to the explosive potential of the Cascades volcanic range, it took a further 24 years – 24 years! – for the volcano to be comprehensively adorned with the appropriate amount of monitoring equipment.
Kīlauea’s 2018 eruption bemused volcanologists for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that it stopped erupting in that year’s summer even though no more than a third of its magmatic fuel tank had been depleted. It fell relatively silent by September, and volcanologists suspected it would take many years for lava to return to the summit of the volcano. But it started grumbling significantly again in November 2020, and since December 20th it’s been erupting in a fairly prolific manner from its peak. Those convulsions did herald a fresh injection of magma into the shallow subsurface, but the onset of the vigorous eruption itself was definitely far earlier than many suspected.
The point is that volcanoes don’t operate on human timescales, and they never do exactly what anyone expects. Properly monitoring them is a necessity. The Natural Resources Management Act, a bill signed into law in March 2019, was mainly about better handling America’s natural resources, but a tiny section of the text called for the establishment of the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System, or NVEWS. This system, which the U.S. Geological Survey had been hoping to get started 14 years prior, would essentially update the agency’s monitoring capabilities and streamline their data acquisition; in short, it would bring their ability to keep watch over America’s volcanoes into the 21st century.
NVEWS remains conceptual for now. The bill only gives the go-ahead for the system to be set up. The government still needs to give it $55 million in funding for the real work to begin, and even then, it’ll take up to a decade to fully implement. And if you think $55 million sounds like a lot, it’s not. It’s a fraction of America’s basic R&D budget of $80 billion per year, and even that is nothing compared to the annual $4.5 trillion budget.
There’s no time to waste. The Biden Administration needs to put that $55 million in the next budget request, and Congress needs to approve it. Who knows what future tragedy it could prevent, especially while the country’s dealing with a drawn-out pandemic with no clear terminus.