Federal Budget Cuts Will Disrupt Critical Volcano Monitoring Services In Alaska
May 15, 2013

Federal Budget Cuts Will Disrupt Critical Volcano Monitoring Services In Alaska

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

More than a week after Alaska´s Cleveland volcano began erupting, sending ash clouds 15,000 feet into the air, another Alaskan mountaintop began rearing its ugly head. The Pavlof volcano, which sits about 350 miles northeast of Cleveland, showed signs on Monday that it was on the verge of eruption, based on increased seismic activity at the summit, according to Wired Magazine.

Cleveland and Pavlof both sit in Alaska´s Aleutian Range. However, Pavlof (elev. 8,261 feet) sits on mainland Alaska, while Cleveland (elev. 5,676 feet) sits on the western edge of Chuginadak Island. Both volcanoes on Tuesday were producing lava flows and are being monitored for further activity by the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO).

The AVO updated alerts to an orange code, meaning there was a possibility the activity could disrupt planes flying in the area. The observatory has spotted lava flanking the north face of Pavlof covering an area 0.3 miles wide as it pushes downslope. Cleveland is producing a lava flow about 330 feet wide extending more than a mile down the southeastern flank.

The AVO said that Cleveland could produce ash clouds extending more than 20,000 feet above sea level, and further monitoring is necessary, as air travel may need to be diverted. And there is an increased risk that either Cleveland or Pavlof, or both, could erupt.

“They are very similar, and both have the ability to erupt,” John Power, a scientist from the USGS and the AVO, told CNN.

However, while monitoring Pavlof´s eruption risk is easy, as the AVO and other agencies have ground monitoring stations near the volcano, getting readings from Cleveland is far more difficult. To monitor Cleveland´s seismic activity, the AVO must rely on infrasonic technology. Infrasound, which detects ultra-low frequencies, is a relatively new technology for monitoring volcanic activity. And while the method is proving its importance due to lack of ground stations in the area, it has limitations as well.

Predicting activity based on sound may work well enough, but being able to make solid forecasts requires seismic data as a means of real-time tracking. However, federal budget cuts are not only keeping scientific organizations and monitoring facilities from adding new seismic stations, they are also forcing the closure of some stations and keeping repairs from being made on older equipment.

Such cuts to federal funding would not only affect how well agencies can monitor and predict possible dangerous eruptions, but the move could also mean serious delays in relaying vital information to airline pilots who may be flying into dangerous ash clouds and emergency planners who may need to prepare shelters and hospitals in case of a deadly eruption.

There are at least five volcanoes of Alaska´s 52 that can no longer be tracked with real-time equipment due to budget cuts. Many of Alaska´s volcanoes sit in the Aleutian Range and are along international air routes between North America and Asia.

“Because our budget has been declining for so long, we have no hope of actually addressing the eruption in the way that it really should be,” said Power.

Alaska Airlines officials said the AVO, which is funded directly by the USGS, plays a crucial role in volcano monitoring. Monitors need to operate at all times and not just during major eruptions, noted Betty Bollert, a dispatcher with Alaskan Airlines.

"I think the public gets kind of complacent when nothing exciting is happening ... and think, 'Oh, why should we throw money at that?"' Bollert, who was on duty in 1989 when the Redoubt volcano blew 115 miles from Anchorage, told The Associated Press.

Following that eruption, aircraft flying in the area received heavy damage from ash — including one Boeing 747 carrying 231 passengers. The plane lost all four engines after flying into the ash cloud. Luckily, the crew was able to drop two miles below the ash cloud and restart the engines and land safely in Anchorage, according to the AP.

Hundreds of flights all around the world are diverted each year due to volcanic activity. An Icelandic eruption in 2010 forced European officials to ground all flights due to an ash cloud carried by prevailing winds to Northern Europe.

As finances for volcano monitoring dwindle, several services are falling by the wayside. First put into place in 1988, the Alaskan volcano monitoring system is now on the verge of total collapse. As for the Cleveland volcano, seismic stations that would have offered far better monitoring services are now off the table.

"Because our budget has been declining for so long, we have no hope of actually addressing the Cleveland eruption in the way that it really should be," said Power.

Power noted that at one time, more than half of Alaska´s 52 volcanic mountains had working seismic instruments in place. Of the 200 instruments originally put into use, 80 have fallen into disrepair and cannot be fixed due to budgetary restraints.

If federal funding continues to be an issue, eventually all seismic monitoring stations in Alaska will fail and there will be no advanced monitoring techniques in place to alert airline pilots and emergency planners in time to potentially save lives.

Federal cuts have also reduced the number of days helicopter crews can fly over volcanoes and make repairs to equipment in remote locations. In 2008, crews could fly 146 days out of the year; today, only 36 days are allotted to helicopter use.

The observatory still has satellite data, infrasonic monitoring and reports from pilots. But none of these offer real-time information. The AVO was able to pick up the sound waves from the Cleveland eruption, but it took 40 minutes for data to reach scientists in Anchorage, some 940 miles away. Those 40 minutes could have been the difference between life and death if seismic monitoring was available.

The AVO is not the only agency dealing with budget cuts. Volcano observatories in Wyoming, California, Washington and Hawaii are also facing cuts, leading to reductions in lab studies, eruption research and lava survey flights. Lava flyovers in Hawaii, once conducted on a weekly basis, now are only able to occur every two weeks.