Volcano observatories reduce risk around the globe. Here’s how we can support them

By: Jacob B. Lowenstern, Ph.D. and John W. Ewert, U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory
 

Volcano observatories are a critical tool for governments to reduce the impacts of volcanic eruptions. It is the responsibility of governments, scientists, and local citizens to support the efforts of these institutions to make those at risk safer.
 

Citation: Lowenstern, J. B., Ewert, J. W., 2020, Volcano observatories reduce risk around the globe. Here’s how we can support them, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.085
 

Mount St. Helens erupting on May 18, 1980. Credit: USGS
Mount St. Helens erupting on May 18, 1980. Credit: USGS

 

At any given moment, a couple dozen of Earth’s volcanoes are erupting, typically on or near all seven continents, but especially active around the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire. Notably, there are more than 1500 other volcanoes capable of reawakening and creating impacts to society that range from nuisance to catastrophic. Eruption styles, timescales of activity, and indicators of unrest are unfortunately highly variable. The good news is that the locations of Earth’s volcanoes and the hazards they present are well known and they can be closely monitored by scientists at volcano observatories. These institutions conduct research, deploy and maintain monitoring equipment, assess hazards, and provide valuable community education in regions at elevated risk from volcanic activity.

One clear lesson from decades of experience responding to volcanic unrest is that those nations that nurture their volcano observatories are far more likely to minimize confusion and ensure favorable societal outcomes from volcanic crises. Volcano observatories are the trusted source for knowledge about local volcanoes prior to, during, and in the aftermath of eruptions. Here, we highlight the importance of volcano observatories, stress their role in natural-hazards risk reduction, and provide advice to those seeking to bolster global resilience to volcanic disasters.

 

Volcanic hazards are variable

It is important to recognize that volcanic eruptions vary: some volcanoes can erupt for years at a time (e.g., Kilauea, USA, 1983–2018; Santiaguito, Guatemala, 1922-present; Dukono, Indonesia, 1933-present), while others may rapidly build up to devastating eruptions and then quiet down for decades or centuries (Pinatubo, Philippines, 1991; Chaiten, Chile, 2009). Importantly, some volcanoes lie dormant for thousands of years before reawakening. Some volcanoes exhibit intense unrest but then fail to erupt, while others may have sluggish awakenings followed by sustained eruption for a decade or more (Montserrat, BWI, 1995–2013). Worst-case scenarios rarely occur, but they have regional to global consequences (Tambora 1815 and Krakatau 1883 in Indonesia; Laki in Iceland, 1783). They can trigger famine and disrupt agriculture, global transportation, and trade.

 

Fuego (left) and Acatenango (right) volcanoes tower over the new seismic and infrasound monitoring site at La Reunion Golf Course in Guatemala. The golf course was impacted by pyroclastic flows on June 3, 2018, and has been affected by subsequent lahars. Credit: USGS
Fuego (left) and Acatenango (right) volcanoes tower over the new seismic and infrasound monitoring site at La Reunion Golf Course in Guatemala. The golf course was impacted by pyroclastic flows on June 3, 2018, and has been affected by subsequent lahars. Credit: USGS

 

Volcanoes can present a rich variety of hazards, but not all possible hazards will occur with each eruption and the extent, effects, and lethality of disparate hazardous phenomena in a given eruption varies widely in both time and space. Because volcanoes exhibit such variable behavior, they trigger an incredible amount of uncertainty both locally, and globally. Should threatened populations be evacuated? What infrastructure is vulnerable? What will be the effect on air travel, trade, tourism, and agriculture? None of these questions can begin to be answered without knowing details about the volcano and its history of eruptions. Indeed, in clear contrast to the post-event focus on earthquakes and tsunamis, with volcanoes, much of the confusion and chaos starts prior to the eruption–or even in anticipation of one that never occurs.

 

The role of volcano observatories

Volcano observatories serve multiple purposes: 1) they manage the monitoring infrastructure that is used to develop baseline behavior metrics and to detect the early onset of magma ascent toward the surface, 2) they conduct research and forecast volcanic activity, 3) they advise emergency responders as to potential outcomes, and 4) they are the long-term presence and local source of information about the history, eruptive styles, and hazards for each volcano in their area of responsibility.

Importantly, their long-term presence in a region often engenders critical trust from the general public–gained through outreach and education activities. Close alliances with academia, the civil protection community, and local communities, all build goodwill that can ameliorate the anxiety and frustration that accompanies evacuations, the designation of exclusion zones, and the looming unknown. Without a responsible observatory, there is no familiar and authoritative voice: instead, there are multiple competing and often contradictory voices from different organizations and jurisdictions.

 

Scientists at volcano observatories educate the public through various programs, building critical trust within the local community. Credit: USGS
Scientists at volcano observatories educate the public through various programs, building critical trust within the local community. Credit: USGS

 

A call to support observatories

Unfortunately, some of the most volcanically active nations lack the will or resources to fund programs that support natural hazards research. It is therefore important to find means to support observatories–by donating equipment, training staff, conducting collaborative research, and fostering best practices for communications and education. Our group, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) (funded largely by USAID) has supported a number of volcano observatories for almost 35 years, but our small program is dwarfed by the global need to understand, monitor, and mitigate volcanic risk. There are ample opportunities for academia, governments, NGOs, and the global insurance industry to support observatories, hazard science, and disaster risk reduction. Below, we outline some strategies and guidelines that can strengthen observatories and societal resilience to volcanic events.

Sustainable Monitoring Infrastructure: Donations to observatories will be most useful if they are treated as long-term capital investments with planning input from the host institution. Temporary data collection networks deployed in volcanically active regions are often designed for immediate scientific payoffs for many international science teams. Resulting data can provide important insights into hazards, but they too often fail to provide long-term benefit to the region. Ideally, permanent monitoring networks would be established. However, pertinent questions to address include: can the equipment be maintained easily? Does the observatory have sufficient training and funding to make repairs? Are the new instruments compatible with previously installed equipment and analysis software? And are the telemetry costs affordable? Cellular telemetry may be easy to deploy, but it usually requires significant monthly fees that may be difficult for the observatory to support. Moreover, cellular systems may fail during high-volume network traffic as would be typical of a volcanic crisis.

 

Installation of a telemetered, solar-powered scanning spectrometer in 2016 at Sinabung volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia. The instrument measures the amount of sulfur dioxide gas emitted from the volcano, which helps forecast volcanic activity. Credit: USGS
Installation of a telemetered, solar-powered scanning spectrometer in 2016 at Sinabung volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia. The instrument measures the amount of sulfur dioxide gas emitted from the volcano, which helps forecast volcanic activity. Credit: USGS

 

Partnerships, Agreements, and Practice: Good science is only one small part of volcanic risk mitigation. Even if an observatory has sufficient information to identify abnormal volcano behavior and make a forecast, any shared information must be actionable and must be delivered to those who are able to respond. Ideally, this means that the observatory would have credibility and formal agreements with local and national governments to share resources, assign responsibilities, and practice protocols during realistic eruption scenarios. For a successful partnership, sufficient accumulated goodwill and mutual trust and respect among institutions is required. Only then will the public be willing and able to accept the pronouncements of emergency responders. Therefore, insofar as is possible, international support to volcano observatories should offer assistance tailored to the culture and context of a nation’s emergency response system. We encourage any institution with the interest and means to assist volcano observatories to establish working relationships with the observatory organization in advance of any volcano crisis. We also stress that collaborative research and data distribution should be supportive of the professional development of the observatory staff.

Messaging and Divergent Opinions: A challenge to successful crisis response is the ability to rapidly incorporate new data while disseminating helpful analyses and actionable recommendations to partners and the public. Many volcano observatories are not equipped with the resources or staffing to employ the full range of monitoring tools currently available to help manage a volcano crisis. As such, there are areas where outside groups can contribute to observatory efforts.

The role of partnering scientists should be to provide background support to lead scientists, following observatory communications plans. Divergent opinions are most readily accepted from trusted, long-term colleagues of observatory scientists, and in all cases the local observatory must be the authoritative source of information and analysis. Sometimes, the observatory may create a long-term scientific advisory panel of local experts who can assist with interpreting data and acquiring additional information. Such a panel can act as a separate and semi-independent source of information that complements and supports the observatory messaging and incorporates ideas from the international scientific community. Without the operational responsibilities of the observatory, a panel can concentrate on problems of interpretation and understanding that the observatory staff may be too harried to address in a timely manner.

 

Looking Forward

As people and critical infrastructure inexorably encroach on areas subject to volcanic hazards, volcano observatories have a growing role in disaster risk reduction. Observatories must bridge the gap between scientists and society to provide cogent, defensible analyses of volcanic activity, and attempt to make actionable hazard forecasts. Insufficient support from governments for developing and maintaining human capital and monitoring infrastructure leaves many volcano observatories in a precarious state. Partnering institutions and scientists can help support volcano-disaster risk reduction by developing long-term collaborative relationships with volcano observatories, by addressing observatory priorities, and by playing a supportive role in research, monitoring, hazard assessments, and communications.