NPR science reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce says that defenders of volcano monitoring are erupting -- her word, don't blame me -- with quiet indignation at the idea that it is wasteful to spend money to watch out for potential geologic disasters. Here's her report:
During his response to President Obama's address to Congress, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal singled out "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring' " as an example of out-of-control federal spending. "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.," Jindal said.
But that $140 million figure isn't accurate for volcano watching, as several blogs have already pointed out in sharply worded challenges to the idea that volcano watching is worthless. The stimulus bill allocates that amount for repair and restoration of a variety of USGS science facilities and laboratories.
Only a fraction of that money would be spent on monitoring volcanoes, says Marianne Guffanti, senior vulcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "I've heard that it's going to be $15.6 million," Guffanti says, although the exact amount has not yet been finalized.
And while it might seem at first glance that volcano hazards are exotic and not of concern to the United States, Guffanti says that's not the case. "We are one of the most volcanically active countries in the world," she says. "We have nearly 170 volcanoes that are either active or capable of reawakening."
And more than a dozen are directly beneath major flight paths for airplanes. That's important because clouds of ash can disable jet engines.
In 1989, a full -loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jet was flying over Alaska when an ash cloud suddenly appeared and all four engines suddenly stalled out, causing the plane to fall dangerously close to the mountains that surround Anchorage before the engines could be restarted. That ash came from Mount Redoubt, a volcano roughly 100 miles from Anchorage. And Mount Redoubt has been restlessly rumbling in recent weeks.
"For about the last 3 1/2 months we have been watching it very closely and we have raised our alert level there," Guffanti says.
An April 2005 report from the USGS concluded that about half of the most threatening U.S. volcanoes are monitored at a basic level and few are well-monitored with modern instruments. "Monitoring capabilities at many hazardous volcanoes are known to be sparse or antiquated, and some hazardous volcanoes have no ground-based monitoring whatsoever," the report noted.