Author: Grace van Deelen

No Canadian volcanoes meet monitoring standards

Source(s): Eos - AGU
Volcanic eruption

In 2005, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists analyzed 169 potentially active volcanoes in the United States to determine what risks they posed to people. They found that more than 50 U.S. volcanoes weren’t sufficiently monitored, which ultimately led to vast expansions in monitoring at many of the highest-threat sites, such as Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake.

Now, a similar analysis has been done in Canada. The research, published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, finds that even the most threatening Canadian volcanoes aren’t monitored at levels recommended by internationally recognized strategies, and scientists lack important knowledge about each of the 28 volcanoes studied. 

“It’s a work in progress, no matter what country you’re in, to get your monitoring up to snuff.”

Scientists hope their results will help decisionmakers prioritize additional monitoring for Canada’s most threatening volcanoes, said Melanie Kelman, a volcanologist at the Geological Survey of Canada and coauthor of the new research. 

Ranking volcanic risk

The researchers followed methods first used in the 2005 USGS analysis of volcanic risk in the United States as part of the National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS). For the Canadian volcanoes, Kelman and her coauthor produced an overall threat score based on the likelihood of events like lava flows, landslides, and explosions, as well as the likelihood that such events would affect people and property. 

The NVEWS methodology is very familiar to volcanologists, and using it allows the rankings of Canadian volcanoes to be compared to other volcanoes worldwide, said Alison Graettinger, a volcanologist at the University of Missouri–Kansas City who was not involved in the new study.

Two volcanoes, Mount Garibaldi and Mount Meager, ranked in the “very high” threat category. Three volcanoes (Mount Cayley, Mount Price, and Mount Edziza) ranked in the “high” threat category. The remaining 23 volcanoes ranged from “moderate” to “very low” threats. 

The researchers then gave each volcano a “knowledge uncertainty score” based on the amount of information scientists have collected about it. Many Canadian volcanoes, including most in the very high and high threat categories, have not been studied in detail, the authors write: Mount Garibaldi, for example, is part of the well-known Cascade Volcanic Arc but one of the least studied of all Canadian volcanoes. 

Because scientific knowledge of Canadian volcanoes is low and geologic studies typically reveal more complexity, more scientific knowledge would likely increase rather than decrease threat scores, the authors write. 

Volcanoes in the study fell far short of the recommended monitoring: Not one of the volcanoes analyzed met USGS recommendations for their threat level.

In fact, all volcanoes except Mount Meager are unmonitored except for a regional network of seismographs with varied proximity to the volcanoes. Mount Meager, one of the two very high threat volcanoes, is the most monitored, but even it meets monitoring guidelines recommended only for very low threat volcanoes. Its monitoring activities are infrequent and conducted by different organizations, which limits data sharing. 

“The ability to detect and respond to anomalous activity [at Mount Meager] is extremely limited,” the authors write. 

Meeting monitoring goals

The results aren’t surprising in the context of volcanoes worldwide, Graettinger said. In the United States, for example, volcano monitoring still frequently falls short of recommended standards from the USGS.

“It’s a work in progress, no matter what country you’re in, to get your monitoring up to snuff,” she said.

In the U.S. Cascades region, home to some of the country’s most active volcanoes, volcanologists try to match monitoring activity to threat levels, said Jon Major, a hydrologist at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory who was not involved in the new research. For example, activity at Mount St. Helens poses a high risk to regional aviation, so the USGS prioritized monitoring there. “Our goal is to notify the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and the National Weather Service within 5 minutes of an explosive eruption,” he said.

But monitoring that meets USGS recommendations requires permanent instrumentation, which is expensive and difficult to install at many sites. That’s especially true in Canada, where some volcanoes are covered in glaciers or require helicopters to access. “The remoteness is a key factor,” Kelman said. “It’s rugged, mountainous terrain that may be only accessible by helicopter or long-distance trekking.”

Kelman said she hopes the new analysis will spur future research and monitoring, especially at the five very high and high threat volcanoes.

Part of the challenge is risk perception: Many Canadians aren’t even aware that they live near volcanoes, Kelman said. There is no living memory of an eruption in Canada, unlike in the United States, which has frequently active volcanoes in Alaska and Hawaii and where many people, some of whom are involved in policymaking, still recall the eruption of Washington’s Mount St. Helens in 1980.

“It’s tough to convince people that this is necessary,” Kelman said. 

It’s hard to convince decisionmakers to add volcanoes to their list of priorities, too, Graettinger added. “That’s just a challenge across the globe. We’re dealing with more people on the planet living closer to risks, not just from volcanoes,” she said. “How do we get volcanoes to not be forgotten?”

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Hazards Volcano
Country and region Canada
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