May 19, 2005

Penny wise, pound foolish.

Since the GOP took control of Congress in the mid-1990s, one of the things they've done is to flatline the funding for the US Geologcial Survey. Among the tasks of the USGS is to keep track on the nation's volcanoes, such as Washington's Mt. St. Helens and Hawaii's Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Because of its money shortage, the USGS has hired very few young scientists over the past decade — nowhere near enough to replace the generation of volcanologists that will be retiring in the next few years. The problem was severe enough five years ago that the National Research Council warned that USGS volcano-monitoring programs could collapse as a result of those retirements. Given that US cities such as Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland live in the shadow of active volcanoes, this is not a good thing.

Mt Rainier over Tacoma skyline
Mt. Rainier looms over Tacoma [Photo: Lyn Topinka/USGS]
In the five years since the NRC report, unfortunately, the situation at the USGS has only grown worse.

[Sixty-five] percent of the staff at USGS' Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., [is] eligible for retirement in five years. At the same time, promising students have shunned volcanology for other fields because job prospects have been so poor.

"The mantra has been: In a few years, we'll start hiring," [USGS volcanologist Dan] Dzurisin said. "I've been saying that for a decade now."

Now an authority on the way volcanoes swell and deform before eruptions, Dzurisin honed his craft with the help of more experienced scientists who converged on Mount St. Helens in the early 1980s.

He worries the next generation of volcanologists won't benefit from that type of apprenticeship, so crucial in a field where it can be just as important to know how to trouble-shoot a broken sensor in a snow bank as to interpret the data it yields.

If the USGS doesn't start replenishing its scientific ranks soon, public safety could suffer when volcanoes like Mount Rainier or Mount Baker awaken and the agency lacks the personnel and expertise to evaluate the dangers, said Arizona State University volcanologist Jonathan Fink, who headed the NRC panel.

"We need to be talking about these things before they happen," he said. "Not afterward."

Having lived in Portland when Mt. St. Helens had its major eruption in 1980, this magpie has some idea how much the expertise of USGS volcanologists can matter. We remember being able to get home ahead of a major ashfall only because the USGS was able to give warning that an ash cloud was heading Portland's way.

You can find more information on the USGS Volcano Hazards Program here.

Via Seattle Times.

Posted by Magpie at May 19, 2005 03:19 PM | Science | Technorati links |

Yeah, but those volcanoes are all in blue states. It isn't like anything important will be damaged if one of them blows.

Posted by: natasha at May 19, 2005 07:40 PM

and the ones in the red state (alaska) are so far away -- and there's so few electoral votes there -- that nobody in Dubya's administration cares if anchorage gets covered in ash & lava.

Posted by: Magpie at May 19, 2005 09:43 PM

Hell, Bush and Rove would like nothing better than to tune into Fox News and watch Rainier blow her stack and level Puget Sound in volcanic backwash.

They probably have a few bottles of Dom around for the toast, just in case.

Posted by: David Aquarius at May 20, 2005 10:41 AM

Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention. I remember back in 1995, right after the Gingrichites had taken control, that the GOP actually wanted to eliminate the USGS.

Posted by: P.M.Bryant at May 23, 2005 01:50 PM