WASHINGTON — Late last year, when a volcano in Alaska suddenly blew its top after 25 years of dormancy and began spewing ash more than 33,000 feet into the air, nobody was watching.

The volcano, located on Bogoslof Island, near Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, isn’t on the official volcano monitoring list of the U.S. Geological Survey, which tracks only about 60 of the 169 “geologically young” volcanoes in the United States. So it took awhile for news of the eruption to make its way to volcano experts elsewhere in the country, including Hawaii.

“We only monitor a fraction of the active volcanoes in the country,” said Jeff Freymueller, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who serves as coordinating scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory. “It’s a fundamental public safety problem,” he told Civil Beat in a telephone interview.

Billowing steam and lava flow into the ocean near Volcano National Park, south of Kalapana, Hawaii as our boat glides past newly formed Hawaii island. 14 sept 2016
Billowing steam and lava flow into the ocean near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, south of Kalapana on the Big Island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Freymueller hopes legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii will allow volcano-watchers to better detect dangers like the unexpected eruption at Bogoslof Island and help protect people who might otherwise find themselves in harm’s way.

The dangers from volcanoes take many forms — molten lava that destroys buildings and homes, earthquakes, sulfurous gases, tsunamis that sweep to islands thousands of miles away and plumes of billowing ash, like those from Bogoslof, that can endanger passing airliners.

Senate Bill 346 would create a national volcano early warning and monitoring system that would more closely link volcano experts into a single interoperative system. It would provide them with modern seismographic tracking equipment and create a network to watch for eruptions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including on volcanoes that have previously gone unmonitored.

The nation’s five volcanic observatories include the Alaska Volcano Observatory, located in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska; the Cascades Volcano Observatory, in Vancouver, Washington; the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory at Yellowstone National Park, which tracks Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; the California Volcano Observatory in Menlo Park, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.

Lava approaches Pahoa Road in this October 29, 2014 file photograph. 29 October 2014 .Photograph Cory Lum.
Lava from Kilauea on the Big Island approaches Pahoa Village Road. It ultimately stopped short of developed areas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“For the past 34 years, we have experienced first-hand the threat of volcanic activity to our daily lives with the ongoing eruption at Kilauea,” Hirono said in a statement. “As recently as 2014, we had evacuations and damage to critical infrastructure and residences. This bipartisan bill is important as it updates and unifies the five volcano observatories across the nation and creates a grant program that will support critical monitoring research and technology development that will be used to save lives.”

The legislation’s named sponsors are U. S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state who serves as ranking member of the committee. Hirono serves on the same committee.

The bill, introduced this week, would help provide the kind of information that could be very useful for people in Hawaii, where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Alaska or on the West Coast can spawn deadly tsunamis.

“There’s an obvious interest in Hawaii,” said Freymueller. “Hawaii is dealing with volcanic problems all the time.”

Murkowski said the legislation is also needed for reasons of flight safety. Volcanic ash in the air can disable aircraft engines. The Aleutian Islands lie beneath the flight path to Asia from Europe and North America. Murkowski said that more than 80,000 large aircraft travel that route each year, transporting some 30,000 passengers a day.

She said that there are even greater potential problems for air travelers transiting near the Cascade Range, flying the route near Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.

On the Senate floor, Murkowski reminded her colleagues of the 1989 incident when a Boeing 747 encountered an ash cloud rising from Mount Redoubt, a volcano in the Aleutian Range.

“The plane lost power in all four engines, falling some 10,000 feet before it could restart two of its engines,” which allowed the pilot to stabilize it and land safely in Anchorage, saving the lives of 231 passengers, Murkowski said.

Freymueller said that volcanic eruptions can spew dust and gas into the atmosphere very quickly after a first eruption.

“We’ve had times when, in half an hour or in a couple hours, we went from having a volcano with no signs of unrest to eruption, putting ash clouds up as high as 50,000 feet,” he said.

Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory learned about the Bogoslof eruption indirectly, through seismic sensors at other volcanoes, from airline pilots who reported seeing explosions and ash plumes, and incidents reported by Coast Guard vessels in the area.

Right now, in the absence of a federal monitoring program, the observatory is tracking volcanic activity by recruiting Unalaska residents as volunteers to take pictures of eruptions and measure ashfall by using a ruler or measuring tape and a clean spatula.

A spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey said he wasn’t allowed to discuss the specifics of the Senate legislation, but he indicated that the agency favors its passage.

“We appreciate the attention the legislation is drawing,” said Justin Pressfield, the Sacramento-based spokesman for the Geological Survey’s western region. “The USGS feels that scientific investigation of hazards can produce a safer country.”

The Geological Survey only monitors volcanoes that have been deemed to present the “highest risk.”

In the past 31 years, there have been more than 50 eruptions and at least 17 episodes of significant unrest at 34 volcanoes, according to the USGS.

This is not the first time legislation of this kind has been proposed. Freymueller said similar legislation was proposed after the Icelandic volcanic eruptions of 2010 that caused massive disruption in European air travel, but the bill stalled. It was introduced again last year, and though it was viewed favorably it fell victim to partisan gridlock.

“They were too busy obstructing everybody else to vote,” Freymueller said. “Everybody thought this was the easiest to pass but nothing got voted on.”

Freymueller said that the estimated cost of the bill in 2016 was $15 million a year.

“It’s a relatively small amount to spend to make us safer,” he said.

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