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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

The National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System also creates a federal advisory board and a research grant program for volcano science.

The U.S. Geological Survey first proposed the system in 2005. Since then, lawmakers have been slow to put it into effect. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said: "It has been on the priority list, but just couldn't move through the process without a larger (legislative) vehicle. We don't want to do it that way, but basically what happens is other people who have priorities hold up your bills."

Last year, similar legislation supported by Cantwell and Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, passed in the Senate. But the House, which was controlled by Republicans at the time, never scheduled it for a vote.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the public lands bill, which passed in both chambers in February.

In the past decade, scientists have developed the technology to not only detect eruptions, but also forecast them. "Volcanoes do things before they erupt, typically, but you've got to have ground-based instruments on the volcano to actually record these precursors to an eruption," Mandeville said.

Extremely sensitive seismometers can record minor earthquakes that increase in frequency before an eruption, and drones carrying sensors can measure changes in gas emissions from the volcano.

If volcanoes are equipped with this technology, then scientists can identify the warning signs of an eruption sooner, which gives emergency responders more time.

Mandeville explained that the Mt. Kilauea eruption in 2018 in Hawaii demonstrated how the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System could help save lives. Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were able to identify the warning signs of an eruption in time to evacuate the surrounding areas. The eruption destroyed more than 700 homes, but there were no deaths.

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"A lot of the instrumentation that we would like to put on more of our volcanoes already existed at Mt. Kilauea," Mandeville said. "It illustrates what can be done to safeguard people when you've got the proper instrumentation in place."

With he public lands measure signed into law, the U.S. Geological Survey will create a plan to implement the newly authorized National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System. The next step will be for Congress to approve the funds it requests.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that she'll work to get full and lasting funding for the National Volcano Warning and Monitoring System, which she has championed for years.

"We're going to make sure that it is not only a part of this next year's appropriation, but that we've got support going forward," she said.

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