Geologists warn us about dangerous volcanoes. Will we spend pennies for warnings?

Summary: While we obsess about climate change and debate if we live in the Anthropocene, we prepare poorly or not at all for natural forces like volcanoes that can level cities. This is folly we can no longer afford. Experts recommend a simple first step to better protect ourselves. Let’s start listening, or nature will teach us an expensive lesson.

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
Steven Mosher (of Berkeley Earth), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

Volcano erupting

America has some of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, including two active “supervolcanoes” — Yellowstone (WY) and Long Lake (CA).  The odds are low of an eruption soon at Yellowstone. But the USGS paints a worrisome picture of Long Lake.

“Based on the frequency of eruptions along the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain in the past 5,000 years, the probability of an eruption {at Long Lake} occurring in any given year is somewhat less than 1% per year or roughly one chance in a few hundred in any given year.

“This is comparable to the annual chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake (like the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) along the San Andreas Fault in coastal California or of an eruption from one of the more active Cascade Range volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, such as Mount Rainier in Washington or Mount Shasta in California.”

But those are just a few of the dangerous volcanoes in America. Some might destroy cities. Some might destroy a state. Although improbable, a supervolcanic eruption at Yellowstone might blanket everything for 500 miles around with 4 inches of ash.

In 2005 the US Geological Survey made a comprehensive study of the threat of volcanoes in the US. They found 57 are of high risk but with inadequate monitoring (systems at some of these might have been upgraded since the study).

NVEWS 2005 survey of volcanoes

California is the State most at risk due to its volcanoes near major cities, as shown in this map from the website of the California Volcano Observatory.CalVO map of California and Nevada volcanoes

The USGS described the risk to America posed by these volcanoes and has a recommendation. We should listen.

“Roughly half of the Nation’s 169 young volcanoes are dangerous because of the manner in which they erupt and the communities within their reach. Currently, many of these volcanoes have insufficient monitoring systems, and others have obsolete equipment.

“The National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure that volcanoes are monitored at levels commensurate to their threats.  The goal of the NVEWS is to ensure that the most hazardous volcanoes will be properly monitored well in advance of the onset of activity, making it possible for scientists to improve the timeliness and accuracy of hazard forecasts and for citizens to take proper and timely action to reduce risk.”

In 2006 the USGS proposed this sensible measure to watch some of the most serious threats to America. See the NVEWS Fact Sheet for details. It could provide additional warning allowing preservation of property and life from an eruption. Of course, both Left and Right ignored it. Congress did nothing.  Using Obama’s post-crash stimulus funding (ARRA) stimulus of 2009-2011 and other funds, the USGS has upgraded 30% of monitoring networks to NVEWS standards.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has introduced bill S.346 to establish the NVEWS. As she did in 2011 and 2014. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the NVEWS would cost $55 million over the five years 2018-2022. Pocket change in terms of US defense spending.

It is a sign of our government’s dysfunctionality that after ten years Congress still has not funded NVEWS. Let’s hope that third time is a charm for Senator Murkowski’s bill.

So many dangers to America! How can we prepare?

Today we allocate funds to risk management by a carnival-like process. Which measures produce the most benefit to power special interests? Which advance the interest of power ideological groups? Which has the advocates screaming the loudest and least-scientific warnings.

We have limited funds to meet the hundreds of threats, most of which are shockwaves: low probability (in any years) but high impact. The first step is straight from the risk management textbooks (probably too sensible for emotional modern Americans): List and assess the various risks on a common scale of likelihood and impact. For details see The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers.

Second, we need an overall framework to decide how much to spend preventing and preparing for shockwave events. Wild irrational voices tell us to spend whatever it takes (e.g., Nassim Nicholas Taleb)! without first calculating how much that is, an obvious sign of unserious thinking. There are important questions of strategy. Getting these right can mean the difference between effective spending and burning scarce dollars. For example, when should we be precautionary or proactionary when preparing for the future?

Let’s be smart and so deserve world leadership by something other than the number of guns we have.

“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
— Private Detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in the movie The Big Sleep (1946).

If we see the world more clearly, we can act more effectively.

Clear vision

For More Information

Look at the information at the California Volcano Observatory and the USGS fact sheet for any major US volcano.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about shockwaves (high impact, low probability scenarios), and especially these …

13 thoughts on “Geologists warn us about dangerous volcanoes. Will we spend pennies for warnings?

  1. Fabius Maximus, fascinating as usual!

    “Getting these right can mean the difference between effective spending and burning scarce dollars. For example, when should we be precautionary or proactionary when preparing for the future?”

    I wonder how much of the problem is a general view from the public that there is need to be effectively spending. I get the distinct impression that we don’t care about effective spending as a society. A large majority of Americans seems to think that effective spending is something for someone else to worry about or should take a back seat to a couple of pet issues.

    As a side issue, it seems like it would be in California’s interest to reduce migration to the state and possibly even reduce the population that is living in such high risk locations. Any idea how California could do that or if you think that’ll even help.


    1. Cake,

      I don’t believe mitigation often requires changing population patterns — except for high risk volcanoes, buildings on barrier islands, and such. But that’s an interesting idea, worth some thought. Property insurance is an effective way to make people think about that. Most infrequent events (e.g., earthquakes) do not substantially increase risks.

      As for spending, I believe most people want effective spending. But we lack mechanisms to produce such granular goals. Today we lack working mechanisms to get government to focus on our goals, let alone execute them efficiently.

  2. One of the things that I have seen in my 38 years as a geologist is that people rarely take geological hazards seriously until Nature slaps them up the side of the head with one disaster or another, but by then it is often too late. One example, the people who built the nuclear reactors at Fukushima knew perfectly well the history of tsunamis in that part of the world, but it was convenient to build the facility below the high water mark of the previous tsunami so they ignored a hazard that was documented and well understood. Is it tragedy or stupidity?

    Overall – a good article, thanks.

  3. What is happening in the USA can be contrasted to what happens where I live in New Zealand. I live on the shores of Lake Taupo, which last had a super-massive eruption 1800 years ago (return period is about 1000 years). There is a volcano currently with a hydrothermal eruption just south of the lake. Auckland, our only large city, is built on a large volcanic field, of which the last one erupted about 300 years ago. There are a number of other active or “dormant” volcanoes in the northern half of the North island, where most of the population lives. Google images “Ruapehu” “eruption” “1995” to see the effects of the last significant one. That had an spectacular ash cloud that went about 200 miles north.

    There is a nation-wide monitoring program Geonet. This should provide adequate warning of future major eruptions. There is also a nation-wide Civil Defense network and they have developed a number of contingency and action plans. An eruption in Auckland will be very problematic as the most likely site is near the CBD, which also is a major port and a bottleneck for all the roads and railway that go the length of the island. But that eruption is predicted to be relatively small, affecting an area of maybe 10 miles diameter. However, if it is Taupo, then there will be big problems. The last eruption put about a foot of ash on an island 400 miles off-shore. Most of the North Island got a heavy coating of ash and debris. If the same happens again, where will the 3 million people that will potentially be affected be evacuated to? Our nearest neighbor is Australia across the ocean 700 miles away but at least it is upwind.

    1. For people not familar with the world’s great volcanoes: The Taupo Volcano

      The Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago was the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years, with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8 (supervolanic). Lake Taupo partly fills the caldera generated during this eruption.

      The Taupo eruption (aka the Hatepe eruption) is the most recent major eruption of the Taupo Volcano, and occurred about 1,800 years ago. A VEI 7 eruption, it is the (or one of the) world’s most violent eruption in the last 5,000 years.

  4. We don’t regard Taupo as “active” – at the last eruption (in AD233 is the latest research so 50 generations ago) there was no -one in New Zealand so there is no accounts of the effects. As you can see from tourist photos, everyone sees it as picturesque and not a threat. Though if you go out on the lake on a calm day, there are still bubbles coming up from the vent on Horomatangi reef. We see the three volcanoes south of the lake as a lot more of a threat. all of them have erupted in the last 50 years. However, I have friends who work for the natural hazards monitoring part of the government and they have put in a very good monitoring system. I linked to it earlier.

    Every time there is an earthquake (and we get a lot) we go onto their site to see where it is. That is the shibboleth between locals and tourists, particularly Australians. The ground shaking terrifies them and we regard it as part and parcel of being here.

    They believe Taupo will give months of warning before an eruption, plenty of time to put their plans into place. They have a consistent message out there — Civil Defense: Volcanoes. With our big earthquakes, the Civil Defence organisations get a lot of practice and do work on keeping plans relevant and practical.

    As for myself, I will go to friends or family down south. Though because of my work, i would be one of the last to leave. The big problem will be critical infrastructure, like the main highway, railway and electricity grid go close to Taupo. An eruption will take all of those out.

    For the Auckland eruptions, they think that even with the monitoring system, they might get only three days notice.

  5. To give more of your readers an idea of how your citizens could be made aware of both the natural hazards and how to prepare for them, or equivalent of your Geological Survey put a lot of information out on the website.
    Schools are actively encouraged to use this website and others as part of their lessons and studying our natural disasters (both the physical effects and what happened to people) is part of the curriculum. Children actually practice earthquake drills at school and most schools are the local Civil Defence headquarters. That type of community involvement helps make everyone here a lot more aware.

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