Posted by: magmatist | May 20, 2013

Sequestration harms planned Mount Baker monitoring improvements

by Dave Tucker, MBVRC  May 20, 2013

Mandatory federal agency spending cuts (‘sequestration’) due to the budget impasse in Congress is having serious impacts on volcano monitoring in the US. You may have read recent media reports descibing the effects on monitoring in Alaska. I have yet to see any press attention to impacts on monitoring in the Cascades. The following assessment is based on a discussion with Carolyn Driedger, a hydrologist who has been the Outreach Coordinator at the Cascade Volcano Observatory since 1990. I learned that monitoring at our local volcanoes, Baker and Glacier Peak, is particularly effected.

What is the impact of sequestration on the Cascades Volcano Observatory?

The USGS took a mandatory 5% cut. That doesn’t sound so bad, except that CVO (and most other offices) has many fixed costs. The effect on ‘other expenditures’ or non-fixed costs (new projects, travel, maintainence of existing monitoring systems throughout the Cascades), means that this funding is actually reduced by an earth-shaking 39%.  CVO will need to defer maintenance and upgrades to monitoring networks, postpone or curtail field work and subsequent laboratory analyses that will delay hazard assessments by up to a year on very-high threat volcanoes, such as Mount Baker. The effects to the public for some of these actions won’t be noticed immediately, but this will begin to erode the monitoring networks and knowledge base that will be critical during any unrest in the Cascades whether it results in an eruption or not.

How will monitoring at Mount Baker and Glacier Peak be affected?

There will be no new LiDAR data obtained for Washington volcanoes in 2013. Lidar imagery is used by geologists to guide studies of eruptive history and for better evaluation and modeling of lahar hazard zones at Cascade volcanoes.  Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are the highest priority LiDAR targets in the Cascades.

Currently, Mount Baker is rated ‘Very High Threat’ potential by the USGS. This rating means it should have the same level of monitoring as the other Very High Threat volcanoes in the Cascades, which include Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak, Hood, Shasta, and Saint Helens. Of these volcanoes, only Saint Helens is monitored at the desired level. At Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, the gap between actual monitoring and the ideal level is large, and much improvement is needed to bring monitoring up to acceptable levels. However, with the current budget crisis at USGS and CVO in particular, preparation and planning for monitoring improvements at Glacier Peak and Mount Baker may be delayed.  There will be no expansion of monitoring at the two volcanoes. Baker will continue to have 2 seismometers, and Glacier Peak only one- by USGS threat assessment standards, they should each have at least 5.

Budget cuts and MBVRC

Overall, there will be greatly reduced funding for USGS to spend time in NW Washington working with public outreach or with officials.  It is doubtful that there will be any USGS involvement in the sparse monitoring activities at these two peaks. It is therefore particularly fortunate that the nonprofit Mount Baker Volcnao Research Center exists to carry out  our voluntary effort to collect gases at Sherman Crater, and continue with the hydrothermal monitoring at Boulder Creek and the springs at Schreibers Meadow. No other non-governmental organization exists in the Cascades that does what MBVRC does: public hazard education, research fundraising, and research coordination at Mount Baker.

Some other specific effects:

Research experiments at the U.S. Geological Survey Debris-flow Flume near Blue River, Oregon will be cut in half, delaying progress on new hazards modeling related to debris flows and natural dam failures. Monitoring stations at Mount St. Helens won’t be upgraded and some maintenance will have to be deferred. The Mount Hood monitoring expansion will be limited to 3 or 4 out of 7 planned sites.

How does curtailment of travel to scientific conferences and the hiring freeze affect USGS-CVO?  

Only a minimal number of scientists have been able to travel to conferences and meetings. This severly curtails face-to-face interactions with colleagues from other agencies and academia. It effects the pace at which scientific progress on hazards questions can be made and the speed that USGS can implement new procedures and methods. The near ban on international travel is especially harmful– the community of hands-on volcanologists is truely international, scattered among volcano observatories and research centers all over the world. Meeting where new findings, methodologies, and case studies are described are critical if US volcano scientists are to keep up to date with the latest ideas.Coming soon: a post about the USGS National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS). Thsi will provide the rankings and threat levels of the Cascade volcanoes, and list the existing and desired levels of monitoring at each. Stay tuned.


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