Aerial pictures of the city of Seattle have changed a lot over the last 10 years – with Amazon moving in and the ongoing building booms the skyline is constantly evolving. But a consistent image in the backdrop to this skyline is Mount Rainier, looming large in the pictures despite being about 60 miles away from the Seattle center.
The Pacific Northwest is all about the outdoors and Mount Rainier is part of what we love about living here, but it is also considered by the U.S. Geological Survey to be the third most dangerous volcano in the U.S., following only behind Kilauea in Hawaii and Mount St. Helens in Washington. So why aren’t we concerned? Because Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, and volcanoes) is a very busy lady but volcanic eruptions are still rare and deaths from volcanic eruptions are increasingly rare – mostly due to better monitoring systems, better warning systems, and of course better data.
Despite all the metrics and monitoring, we can’t really predict when a volcano will erupt. What we can do though is to provide some information on how a volcano will react when it is erupting. Volcanic behavior usually happens way below the earth’s surface, where monitoring and tracking devices can’t reach. So geologists rely on data from past eruptions, seismic activity, and more visible symptoms. This may not be much consolation to the homeowners in Leilani Estates in Hawaii, whose homes are being destroyed by lava flow from the ongoing eruption of Kilauea, but at least evacuation warnings were possible so that loss of life has so far been avoided.
We owe some of this early warning information to data that was gathered during other eruptions. The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 sadly resulted in 57 deaths, but that could have been much higher. On March 1, 1980 the University of Washington put a new system of seismographs into operation in the Cascade mountains (including Mount St. Helens) to monitor earthquake activity. Increased seismic activity on Mount St. Helens during that time triggered even more active monitoring of the mountain. Volcanologists were able to measure ash columns and could measure the fissures on the volcano by using complex system of lasers and reflective targets on nearby mountain ridges. The data that was collected led to evacuations that saved lives and the eruption of Mount St. Helens became “one of the best-monitored volcanic eruptions in history”.
The data collected from these events (including the ongoing activity at Kilauea) will be vast – seismic monitoring, lava flows, lahar behavior, etc. Some of this data is available through the Open Data initiative (https://project-open-data.cio.gov/) and the National Science Foundation has funded an online network called VHub.org which “promotes collaboration among volcano researchers and community partners by providing a place to share everything from eruption data to ash cloud simulations.” Using this data, scientists hope to be able to better manage volcanic behavior in the future, and to provide even better warning systems and guidance to the roughly 1 billion people living in volcanic hazard zones.
Interested in being a volcanologist? There are only about 2 or 3 thousand of them in the world right now but they study volcanoes from land, from sea, and even from space! Here’s a great article on the secrets of volcanologists.