- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The U.S. is falling short in its ability to track and respond to a major volcanic eruption at this time, a panel of experts told a congressional hearing Wednesday.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), which monitors volcanic activity, does not have adequate precautions in place in order to monitor volcanic activity, said Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.

“Many of these high-threat volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest don’t yet have the adequate instrumentation in place to properly monitor their status,” Mr. Lamborn said.

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The oversight hearing was held even as lava flows from Kilauea, a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, slowly engulfed Pahoa, a now-evacuated town of close to 1,000 people. The current eruption has been ongoing for about 30 years, but a recent shift in the direction of the volcano’s flow in June presented new challenges for the local government and its residents.

The lava destroyed its first structure earlier this month and currently is flowing toward a major road that would have a considerable impact on more than 10,000 people if it continues on its path and engulfs part of State Route 130.

Charles Mandeville, volcano hazards program coordinator for the USGS, told lawmakers there is no quick fix for the nation’s preparedness efforts. It would take at least 20 years to finish installing and making fully operational all instrumentation on “high-threat” and “very high-threat” volcanoes if funding does not increase, he said.

The USGS needs between $1 and $2 million per high-threat volcano in order to adequately provide needed instrumentation, said Mr. Mandeville.

“The USGS is about 30 percent complete toward its goal of monitoring all hazardous volcanoes in the U.S. at levels commensurate with the threats they pose,” Mr. Mandeville said. Many high-threat volcanoes, especially in the Cascades mountain range of Washington state and Oregon, “have only rudimentary monitoring that works at this time.”

Darryl Oliveira, director of Hawaii County Civil Defense, praised the work the USGS has done in Kilauea, given what he said were the agency’s limited resources.

“They provide a tremendous service to our community and an invaluable service to our government,” Mr. Oliveira said from Hawaii as a witness via conference call during the hearing.

Because of the lava flows, a 20-mile commute on the Big Island would turn into a 70-mile trek if Rte. 130 were overrun, Mr. Oliveira said. A round trip to and from work that now takes 40 minutes would take nearly four hours, due to the added distance and narrowness of the roads that would be traveled on the detour.

Hawaiians have asked for help in building an emergency access road, but that has been delayed over concerns of invasive species and the impact on possibly endangered species, said Mr. Lamborn.

The varying speed of the slow-moving lava has made forecasting difficult, and the USGS is not currently able to monitor volcanoes in the U.S. up to their standard because of its lack of funding.

“We can’t prevent volcanoes from erupting,” Mr. Mandeville said. “However, research and monitoring can make communities across the nation safer and stronger.”

With 169 potentially active volcanoes, the U.S. is one of the most volcanically active nations in the world. However, scientists do not expect there to be a major volcanic eruption in the near future, said Oregon State University geologist Shanaka de Silva.

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