The scary state of volcano monitoring in the United States
Hawaii’s Kilauea, Washington’s Mt. St. Helens, and Wyoming’s Yellowstone all have extensive monitoring. But many volcanoes in the Cascades have only a couple of far-field sensors, several geologists told me. The Pacific Northwest, which includes high-population areas in close proximity to active volcanoes, is of particular concern for public safety.
“Most people in the U.S. perceive volcanic eruptions as rare, and [believe] that we’d be able to get advance notice because of the advance in science and instrumentation,” said Estelle Chaussard, an assistant professor of geophysics and volcanology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “However, the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens, in Washington, was only 37 years ago, and it took until the volcano became active again in 2004 to start a truly comprehensive monitoring. ... This kind of assumption is therefore very dangerous, because most of our volcanoes are not as intensively monitored as we think they are or as they should be.”
Almost half of the active volcanoes in the country don’t have adequate seismometers—tools used to track the earthquakes that often occur during volcanic eruptions. And even at the sites that do have seismometers, many instruments—selected because they are cheaper and consume less power—are unable to take a complete record of the ground shaking around an eruption, meaning “the full amplitude of a seismogram may be ‘clipped’ during recording, rendering the data less useful for in-depth analyses,” according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey.