May 13, 2012 in Region

Volcanoes monitored worldwide

Eric Florip (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian
Associated Press photo

USGS hydrologist Carolyn L. Driedger explains how officials monitor seismic activity of the Northwest’s volcanoes from the operations room inside the Cascades Volcano Observatory.
(Full-size photo)

VANCOUVER, Wash. – The Cascades Volcano Observatory’s name suggests an entirely Northwest focus. The file cabinets in John Ewert’s office suggest otherwise.

A handwritten label on one drawer simply reads “Colombia.” Another points to the southwest Pacific. Ecuador. Peru. Each refers to a faraway place the observatory’s scientists have watched over the years, often traveling to support local authorities when a potentially dangerous volcano starts acting up.

Of course, Cascades Volcano Observatory scientists also keep a constant, close eye on the mountains in their own backyard. To walk the halls of the observatory’s Vancouver headquarters is to be surrounded by a visual history of each volcano, particularly the Northwest’s most famous, Mount St. Helens. This month, Washington marks Volcano Awareness Month as the anniversary of the mountain’s catastrophic May 18, 1980, eruption approaches.

“It really started modern volcanology,” said Ewert, the observatory’s scientist-in-charge.

When the Cascades are relatively quiet – as they are now – volcanoes generally don’t land high on people’s list of day-to-day concerns, said John Pallister, chief of the observatory’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. But that doesn’t mean communities shouldn’t be ready, he said. An active volcano may only give a few days’ warning before waking up.

“It’s important to have established monitoring systems before a crisis,” Pallister said. “That can be a tough sell if there hasn’t been a crisis in a while.”

The Cascades Volcano Observatory is one of only five volcanic observatories operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. It and other facilities combine a variety of disciplines to keep a finger on the pulse of mountains near and far, and advance ongoing research to better understand them. Among the Vancouver office’s 55 or so staff are geologists, seismologists, hydrologists, petrologists and others.

The facility’s operations room offers a real-time look at Northwest mountains’ constant rumblings. Sixteen flat-screen monitors display seismic readings from several Washington and Oregon peaks, mounted around a pair of digital clocks.

At first glance, the readings may look more dire than they actually are. That’s because outside forces such as wind, footsteps or helicopters can kick up “noise” on the graphs. A sort of cheat sheet on the wall shows how to recognize them.

Outside the Northwest, the Cascades Volcano Observatory’s international efforts remain active. Several local scientists were recently dispatched to Indonesia for “infrastructure building” to help authorities there monitor volcanic threats. Another group traveled to Colombia to help keep tabs on Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano recently showing signs of a possible eruption.

“Volcanoes are constantly chattering away,” seismologist Seth Moran said. “And when they’re chattering, we have to pay attention.”

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