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More than one-third of US volcanoes are under-monitored. Congress is noticing

Julianna Rennie, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Of the United States' 161 active volcanoes, 57 are under-monitored, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, creating blind spots that pose a huge potential threat to public safety.

In 2009, Washington allocated funds to improve the monitoring systems, but the money quickly ran out, and recent spending initiatives never went anywhere.

Dr. Seth Moran is the lead scientist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, which monitors volcanic activity in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

A properly monitored volcano has between 12 and 20 scientific instruments on the ground, Moran said. But Glacier Peak, a snow-capped volcano 70 miles northwest of Seattle that's classified by the U.S. Geological Survey as a "very high threat," has one.

There are 28 under-monitored volcanoes in Alaska, seven in California and five in Washington state. In the United States, five volcanoes erupted in 2018 and three volcanoes erupted in 2017.

Overhauling the current volcano monitoring infrastructure will require at least $50 million from the federal government and could take a decade to implement, according to Dr. Charles Mandeville, coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Congress recently took its first step toward addressing the problem. Last month, lawmakers voted to authorize the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System, which was included in a massive public lands bill.

There are currently five volcano observatories across the country that are responsible for monitoring and warning the public about volcanic activity: the Alaska Volcano Observatory, California Volcano Observatory, Cascades Volcano Observatory, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The observatories lack the funding necessary to properly monitor each volcano and watch incoming data around the clock, according to Moran.

The National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System would modernize and standardize the tools at all of the observatories. It also would enhance coordination between the observatories by creating a national volcano data center and a national volcano watch office that operates around the clock.

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