Environment

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

The United States is home to more than 150 volcanoes. Now geologists have completed the first comprehensive survey of the dangers they pose to nearby communities, even to airplanes overhead. The study suggests many of these dangerous mountains are not being adequately monitored. NPR's Nell Boyce has more.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

On December 15th, 1989, a fully loaded 747 jetliner was flying over Alaska.

(Soundbite of 1989 recording)

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, it's just cloudy. It could be...

BOYCE: Suddenly the plane flew into a strange brown cloud. All four engines flamed out and quit. A cockpit recorder captured the sounds of the pilots struggling to regain control.

(Soundbite of 1989 recording)

Unidentified Woman: We are descending now! We are in a fall!

BOYCE: The cause of the terror was a cloud of volcanic ash. Ten hours earlier a nearby volcano had erupted, sending a giant plume into the air. Luckily, the engines restarted and the plane landed safely. But a new study from government geologists suggest that this kind of incident could happen again. The US Geological Survey looked at 169 volcanoes in the United States. It found that 19 in Alaska and nearby islands are directly beneath major flight paths. More than a dozen other volcanoes could endanger nearby communities.

Mr. JOHN EWERT (US Geological Survey): I have spent the last 20 years playing catchup with dangerous volcanoes, and I can tell you that it's not a good place to be.

BOYCE: John Ewert is a USGS geologist who worked on the study. He said many potentially hazardous volcanoes are in the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. EWERT: You know, it's almost a laundry list of Cascade volcanoes, but Glacier Peak in Washington is one that stands out. Mt. Baker is another one.

BOYCE: Ewert says the trouble is many of these dangerous mountains aren't being monitored well enough to give advance warning of ash clouds or eruptions. To solve that problem, he and his colleagues are trying to get support for a national volcano early warning system.

Mr. EWERT: The science and the technology have matured together to the point where we can propose this sort of next step in volcanology.

BOYCE: Here's how it would work: Sensors on the ground would send data continuously to the five volcano observatories currently operating in the United States. Ewert says these observatories could be linked together to operate a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week volcano watch office. The office would issue an alert if a volcano looked like it was about to make trouble. USGS vulcanologist Marianne Guffanit also worked on the study. She says this kind of system could save lives.

Ms. MARIANNE GUFFANTI (US Geological Survey): Volcanoes give you warning. You can do something about it and not get hurt if you try.

BOYCE: But keeping a better eye on volcanoes will cost money. The current volcano hazards programs has an annual budget of around $20 million. Guffanti says adding more volcanoes and improved monitoring would take another 15 million a year. Her agency will be holding meetings over the next few months to try to build support for the program. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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