Volcano Watch: U.S. ranks high with number of active volcanoes

Monday, July 29, 2013
By Paul Martin

July 29, 2013

ALASKA – When Mount St. Helens erupted explosively in 1980, most people were unaware that the U.S. ranks as one of the top countries in the world in the number of geologically young, active volcanoes. An updated review of the Nation’s active volcanism from 1980 through the end of 2012, however, shows that 107 eruptions occurred at 32 volcanoes (most of which are located in Alaska), and at least 41 episodes of unrest were observed at 13 volcanoes. So far in 2013, four new eruptions have occurred at volcanoes in Alaska (Cleveland, Pavlof, and Veniaminof) and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (Pagan), and two eruptions are continuing in Hawai`i at Kilauea Volcano from Halema`uma`u Crater at the summit and the Pu`u `O`o vent 18 km (12 miles) to the east. Also in 2013, various signs of persistent unrest continue at two of the largest volcanoes in the U.S., Yellowstone and Long Valley calderas in Wyoming and California, respectively. The most explosive and harmful eruption in terms of lives lost and economic effects was that of Mount St. Helens. Large explosive eruptions also occurred at Pagan (1981–1985) and Anatahan (2003) in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and Spurr (1992), Augustine (1986, 2006), Kasatochi (2008), Okmok (1997, 2008), and Redoubt (1989, 2009) in Alaska. The most voluminous lava-producing eruption since 1980 is the ongoing Kilauea eruption (1983-present), which is not showing signs of winding down.

Eruption warnings and regular information updates in the United States are the responsibility of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) through the Volcano Hazards Program(VHP) and its five volcano observatories, along with Federal, State, and University partners. In the past 33 years, the capability of the USGS to issue warnings and updates has increased significantly for several key reasons: the astounding improvements in volcano-monitoring, computer, and information technology; a dramatically increased number of monitoring networks installed on volcanoes with the highest threat in the U.S., especially in Alaska; the experience and expertise gained by scientists in understanding volcanic processes and interpreting the early signs of potential volcanic activity; and the creation of coordinated communication and emergency-response plans for use during eruptions and escalating periods of unrest. This unprecedented capability stems from significant long-term investment by the Federal government to reduce volcanic risk in the nation after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, when funding of volcano monitoring and research increased tenfold. In 2005, the USGS characterized this expanded monitoring and warning capability as the U.S. National Volcano Warning System (NVEWS) and developed a framework for expanding the monitoring effort to include more volcanoes deemed a high threat to the nation but that are not sufficiently well-monitored to ensure detection of unrest and warnings well before any eruption might begin. –Big Island

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