From the Anchorage Daily News:
In his official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said repeatedly that “Americans can do anything!”
With one exception, apparently. We don’t need to keep an eye on simmering volcanoes.
Jindal singled out “volcano monitoring” as an unnecessary frill that Democrats stuck in the recently adopted stimulus package.
“Their legislation is larded with wasteful spending,” Jindal said. “It includes … $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”
Jindal’s comments provoked an eruption of their own. Alaska politicians, liberal bloggers and some scientists began pointing out how useful it is to let people know when a volcano in their neighborhood is about to explode.
“Volcano monitoring is a matter of life and death in Alaska,” Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said in an open letter to Jindal.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski quickly agreed, noting in a press statement how “absolutely appropriate” it is to spend money on volcano monitoring.
Jindal appears to have exaggerated by tenfold the $140 million he said was destined for the nation’s volcano observatories.
Nearly all of that amount — included in the stimulus bill for funding U.S. Geological Survey projects — will go to other USGS functions nationwide, such as repairing facilities and mapping, said John Eichelberger, who heads the agency’s Volcano Hazards Program in Reston, Va.
Only about $14 million will be spent on “monitoring volcanoes,” mostly in Alaska, he said.
“It was a strange thing for (Jindal) to pick up on,” he said. “This is really very important work. We can see these eruptions coming, so it saves lives to be able to warn people.”
Several online commentators, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, questioned why the governor of a state that depends so much on federally funded hurricane watching would criticize spending federal dollars to safeguard other Americans against volcano eruptions. “The intellectual incoherence is stunning,” Krugman wrote.
Multiple requests for a response from Jindal himself via phone calls to the governor’s office in Baton Rouge were not returned Tuesday.
A request for a comment from Gov. Sarah Palin — also considered a future GOP presidential contender — wasn’t forthcoming either. But Palin press secretary Bill McAllister said, “Of course Alaskans want to know if a volcano is going to blow.”
Begich said volcano monitoring also safeguards national economic interests, since Anchorage — bordered by four active Cook Inlet volcanoes — is one of the busiest cargo airports in the world.
The Web site “Live Science” noted that volcano monitoring by USGS scientists probably saved thousands of lives, including those of U.S. servicemen, during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
It’s not just Alaskans who are angry.
(CNN) — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s swipe at federal spending to monitor volcanoes has the mayor of one city in the shadow of Mount St. Helens fuming.
“Does the governor have a volcano in his backyard?” Royce Pollard, the mayor of Vancouver, Washington, said on Wednesday. “We have one that’s very active, and it still rumbles and spits and coughs very frequently.”
[...] Marianne Guffanti, a volcano researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey, said, “We don’t throw the money down the crater of the volcano and watch it burn up.”
The USGS, which received the money Jindal criticized, is monitoring several active volcanoes across the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii. One of those is Mount St. Helens, about 70 miles north of Vancouver, Washington, and neighboring Portland, Oregon.
The volcano killed 57 people when it erupted in 1980 and sputters back into action periodically, most recently in late 2004 and early 2005, when it sent plumes of steam and ash thousands of feet into the air.
USGS researchers are also keeping a close eye on Alaska’s Mount Redoubt volcano, about 100 miles from Anchorage, which is predicted to go off again within a few months. Its last eruption, in 1989, disrupted air traffic and forced down a commercial jet that sucked ash into its engines.
“If we can give good information about what’s happening, that system of diversions and cancellations all works much more efficiently,” Guffanti said. “And fewer people are delayed and standard business is resumed quickly.”
Louisiana is no stranger to natural disasters itself, having been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s chief of staff, said the governor stands by his statement.
“That was just one example of wasteful spending in the largest government spending bill in history,” Teepell said. “The governor made it clear that we need to grow jobs, not government.”
The $140 million line-item for the USGS includes not only monitoring, but also replacement of aging equipment “and other critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects.”
The spending could provide new jobs “no different than the amount of money you would spend on building a street or building a bridge or something,” said Danny Boston, an economist at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, Georgia.
From Scientific American:
The U.S. Geological Society (USGS) is in charge of keeping tabs on volcanoes in the U.S. and its territories. The agency is currently monitoring more than 150 of them (from Yellowstone in Wyoming to Kilauea in Hawaii), some 65 of which show signs of seismic activity and are more likely than the others to erupt (including Redoubt in Alaska and Mauna Loa in Hawaii). But USGS officials aren’t just worried about Hollywood-caliber lava blowups. Other threats include potentially deadly landslides, falling rocky ash, and inundation by toxic gases that can be triggered by volcanic eruptions.
But most active U.S. volcanoes are in remote reaches of Alaska, where few people live and relatively little economic damage stands to occur. So is monitoring volcanoes really necessary?
To find out, we spoke with Ed Venzke, a specialist at the Global Volcanism Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What can we learn from volcano monitoring?
The main purpose of the monitoring is to learn when new magma is rising in the volcano that could lead to an eruption.
Is it important?
It’s extremely important. There are obvious hazards to nearby residents. Beyond human safety, there are huge economic concerns. It’s not that eruptions can be stopped, but, like a hurricane, it’s good to know when it’s coming.
Associated with the monitoring is research of the surrounding area to see where previous lava flows have gone and to see where previous ash fall has occurred. So you get some idea of the history of the volcano and the types of eruptions it typically has. Each volcano is different, so you have to do individual research and individual monitoring.
There’s a huge hazard in the air from eruption plumes. Volcanic ash is not like ash from the fireplace. It’s basically pulverized rocks and glass particles. Putting glass in a jet engine isn’t good. That’s why the monitoring in Alaska is extremely important to the aviation industry.
Where are most of the volcanoes?
In the U.S., most of them are in Alaska. Just this summer, there were three erupting at the same time. It’s rare that a volcano in Alaska is not erupting. Mount Saint Helens [in Washington State] just recently stopped erupting and Kilauea in Hawaii has ongoing eruptions.
So, they’re pretty far from Louisiana?
They are. But there’s a volcano down in the Caribbean on Montserrat that’s been erupting. There are ash plumes from Alaskan volcanoes that have been tracked all the way to the east coast of the U.S. Some of the plumes from eruptions last summer in Alaska reached as far as Iceland and beyond. You can track the gases from these eruptions around the world. These volcanoes can affect air travel over huge areas.
With airplanes, basically what happens is the glass and ash particles go through the jet engines and are heated up and partially melt and get sticky. As they get part of the way out, they cool and harden in the engine. And if you don’t have airflow, the engine stops working. It’s not clear how dense a plume you have to go through for this to happen.
Can you name an instance when volcano monitoring has paid off?
Mount Saint Helens was a great example. The ideal example was not in the U.S., rather it was in the Philippines from Mount Pinatubo in 1991. The USGS’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) responded to that. From the U.S. Navy base there, VDAP officials went in at the first sign of activity and installed a lot of monitoring equipment and did quick emergency research.
Are there any natural disasters the government doesn’t monitor?
I can’t think about any offhand. There are earthquakes and volcanoes as well as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes—all the weather events. You know, compared to flooding, volcanic eruptions don’t impact as many people on an annual basis, but they’re dramatic events and can certainly have huge human and environmental impacts when they do come. And it’s good to know when one’s coming!