Tracking Subtle Signals of Awakening Volcanoes Scientists Try to Gather Crucial Background Data to Understand Likelihood of Future Action

By Robert C. Cowen, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

Tracking Subtle Signals of Awakening Volcanoes Scientists Try to Gather Crucial Background Data to Understand Likelihood of Future Action


Robert C. Cowen, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Since the volcano awoke on the Caribbean isle of Montserrat two years ago, it has become a showcase for volcanologists. Their gas sniffers, seismometers, and other gear have kept islanders as alert to their restless mountain as they would be to an approaching hurricane.

Yet one aspect of their geophysical prowess disappoints Michael Sheridan: Their forecasts, he says, haven't kept up with the volcano's growing destructive potential.

A volcano scientist with the State University of New York at Buffalo, Dr. Sheridan notes that it must be "disturbing" to look at a map designating your area as safe only to learn it isn't safe anymore.

At that point, he adds, people in the area may not believe the revised warning. He doesn't blame the Montserrat Volcano Observatory team for the confusion. It didn't have crucial background data needed to assess what it's dealing with.

Sheridan explains that "the real problem" in volcano forecasting "is to establish a base-line knowledge of what a volcano is like before it shows signs of danger." Then monitors can pick up on small surface deformations, gas emissions, faint underground rumbles, and other subtle signs of a volcano's awakening years before there's obvious action. If they come in cold when eruption seems imminent, they are handicapped in figuring out what is going on, Sheridan says.

Amassing knowledge

Developing that base-line knowledge for hundreds of volcanoes around the world is the challenge volcanologists face as they enter the 21st century. Members of the Montserrat volcano team pointed this out in the journal Science last April. They noted that "many of the world's most dangerous volcanoes are still poorly understood," adding that "this lack of knowledge represents the most pressing problem in reducing volcanic risk in a global context."

There's more to that risk than a rain of hot rocks or flaming rivers of lava. Ash clouds from even mild eruptions can endanger aircraft. A "sleeping" volcano like Mt. Rainier in Washington State may be quietly melting its snow cap from below. The melt water then rots the underlying rock until it can suddenly give way, releasing a devastating mudflow. For Rainier, that would put much of Seattle at risk.

As a step toward getting the needed knowledge, the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior has designated 15 active mountains as "Decade volcanoes." (See box, below.) That marks them for intensive study as part of the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction program. They are not necessarily the most dangerous. There's no international money for the volcano program. Its sponsors hope that a Decade designation will give that volcano a certain priority in a nation's research funding.

That's happening in the United States. Marianne Guffanti, coordinator of the US Geological Survey (USGS) volcano hazards program in Reston, Va., says the survey now monitors 37 of 65 suspect volcanoes in the US (for more information: volcanoes. …

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