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5.03.2005

USGS report stresses danger of park volcano

Article taken from Signs of the Times

By MIKE STARK
Of The Gazette Staff
Billings Gazette

Yellowstone National Park harbors a potentially dangerous volcanic system and more needs to be done to keep track of it, according to a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Improving monitoring at Yellowstone is listed as a "high priority" along with watching volcanoes in Alaska, California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii.

The report, the first-ever comprehensive review of the 169 volcanoes in the United States, calls for a round-the-clock National Volcano Early Warning System that can help predict hazardous volcanic eruptions.

"We cannot afford to wait until a hazardous volcano begins to erupt before deploying a modern monitoring effort," Chip Groat, director of USGS, said in a statement. "The consequences put property and people at risk - including volcano scientists on site and pilots and passengers in the air."

'Basic level' monitoring

About half of the most threatening volcanoes are monitored at a "basic level" and a few are well-monitored with a suite of modern instruments, the report said. But in some places, the equipment is sparse, antiquated or nonexistent.

There are 24 seismic stations keeping track of volcanic activity at Yellowstone, including 19 inside the park's borders. There are also six global positioning system stations that watch the "huffing and puffing" of the Yellowstone caldera.

Henry Heasler, Yellowstone's lead geologist, said officials at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory are looking into upgrades for the seismic stations and an additional six GPS stations.

Those tools will help improve efforts to better understand the volcanic system and detect major activity.

"For volcanic eruptions, we're working hard to approach adequate," Heasler said.

But Heasler said there's a "major concern" that very little is being done to monitor for small hydrothermal explosions in geyser basins, events that are local but can be dangerous.

Heasler also said more work needs to be done to monitor the sometimes-poisonous gas emitted by Yellowstone's vast geothermal network. Last year, five bison dropped dead near Norris Geyser Basin after inhaling toxic gases that were trapped near the ground by unusually cold and windless weather.

"It gave fairly dramatic evidence that gases should be monitored in the park," Heasler said.

Officials are planning to put together a long-range plan for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory that will provide a future road map for monitoring and prioritize equipment and instrumentation.

"The ultimate goal is public safety whether that be volcanic eruptions or small hydrothermal explosions," Heasler said.

The USGS report said there have been 45 eruptions and 15 cases of "notable volcanic unrest" at 33 U.S. volcanoes since 1980, including activity at Yellowstone.

Volcanoes of the highest priority

The report highlighted several "highest priority" volcanoes that need better monitoring. Topping the list were Mount St. Helens and 36 others in the Cascades, Alaska and Hawaii.

Unlike many other natural hazards, volcanic eruptions can be anticipated in the days, or perhaps years, of unrest when magma rises toward the Earth's surface, the report said. With proper equipment and networks, enough warning can be given to forewarn communities at risk.

Failing to set up a "robust" monitoring network is "socially and scientifically unsatisfactory" and will leave scientists and communities to simply react to a dangerous situation rather than prepare for it, the report said.

At Yellowstone, monitoring volcanic activity comes with a few other points to consider, Heasler said. When deploying new equipment, scientists try to minimize the effects on the natural environment and the animals that live there, he said.

"It's an interesting balance between getting the necessary information versus preserving the wilderness," Heasler said.