Deceptive Beauty: Volcanoes Ready to Blow

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For 100 years, scientists have monitored volcanoes in the United States. It's important work because an active volcano can erupt at any time, quickly wiping out entire communities.

CBN News traveled to the Pacific Northwest to learn how today's advanced technology helps keep people safe.

Deceptive Beauty

The Cascade mountain range lines the upper half of the U.S. West Coast. The massive peaks, like Mount Rainier in Washington and Oregon's Mount Hood, represent some of America's greatest beauty... on the surface, that is.

Underneath the rocky terrain lies destructive, hot magma because the Cascades are also active volcanoes.

"They've erupted before, and they will erupt again, and when they erupt, they will present a very real hazard to the people who live nearby," Andy Lockhart, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, told CBN News.

The Cascades are home to Mount St. Helens, the volcano that exploded violently in 1980. In minutes, the infamous eruption took the lives of 57 people, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and destroyed every living thing within 230 square miles.

Still a danger today, Mount St. Helens is considered the most active volcano in the Cascades. Its eruption was a pivotal point in the science of volcanology. The massive explosion put volcano monitoring on the fast track.

For example, at the time, there was only one volcano observatory in the entire United States. Today the USGS has five: the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the California Volcano Observatory, the Cascades Volcano Observatory, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

"Because St. Helens continued to erupt on and off until 1986 it became a laboratory for scientists and engineers to develop new instrumentation, to develop the computer software, the algorithms that could be used to automatically process the increasingly large amounts of data we were able to bring off the volcanoes," John Ewert, the scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, told CBN News.

Inside the Technology

Ewert and his team gave CBN News an up-close look at the technology monitoring Mount St. Helens and the other 168 active U.S. volcanoes, of which more than half could be potentially explosive.

"What these instruments allow us to do is to look at data in real time and get the data to our colleagues so we can build a more comprehensive view of what a volcano is doing during unrest," USGS geochemist Peter Kelly explained to CBN News.

Scientists examine three primary signs when forecasting eruptions:

  • How much a volcano is shaking because of earthquakes or vibrations due to fluid
  • If it's swelling or changing shape because of magma pushing on its sides
  • The amount and types of volcanic gases it's sending out

"It's important because ultimately volcanic gases drive volcanic eruptions, and so understanding volcanic gases is fundamental to understanding volcanic activity," Kelly said.

Today's equipment is much more sensitive to that activity and portable, allowing it to go where people cannot. Take for instance the "spider."

"It's really nice because we set it down with a helicopter so we can really get it close to a volcano where we have a really high signal without all the noise from towns and such," Chris Lockett, a USGS computer scientist, told CBN News.

In Harm's Way

That noise gets closer, however, as the deceptively picturesque scenery lures new residents, leading to the growth of area towns and population centers.

"In the Cascades as a whole, the one that we worry about the most is Mount Rainier because of the number of people living in the valleys on the west side," Lockhart said.

Lockhart explained an eruption can send deadly mudflows or "lahars" filled with rock, sand, and water at high speeds down the mountain across a great distance, destroying everything in their paths.

"I didn't see the eruption of St. Helens in 1980, but I was at the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, and it's just like having a hole blown in your world," he said. "It was just so much bigger and faster than anything I'd ever seen."

When scientists determine the risk of a particular area, they most definitely consider developments built close to volcanoes.

"[The Cascades are] some of the highest threat volcanoes we have in the United States -- actually the majority of the highest threat volcanoes -- and that's because we have so many people and infrastructure nearby," Ewert said.

That, according to Ewert, puts the pressure on for greater accuracy in predictions and improved monitoring technology.

Scientists also urge residents to consider potential hazards, even hidden ones, before choosing where they live.

*Original broadcast November 8, 2012. 

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Mark Martin

Mark Martin

CBN News Reporter

Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.