written by : Volcanologist Janine Krippner
On 13 November 1985 a small eruption deposited hot material on to the snow-clad slopes of Nevado Del Ruiz volcano in Colombia. This set off a catastrophic chain of events. The hot material rapidly melted snow and ice, which rushed down the river valleys as a lahar (volcanic mudflow), accumulating material as it went, and plowed through the town of Armero. Around 23,000 people died, and more people and animals were caught in the thick mud. Some people and animals died quickly, some over several days after being stuck in mud and water, and trapped under debris. Omayra Sanchez, a 13 year old girl, was trapped for ~60 hours before she died. Her photo shocked the world.
This was a big ‘never again!’ event, and volcanology has come a long way since then.
Our understanding of the science – how volcanoes work, the technology – how we monitor volcanoes, and the social implementation – how we prepare communities for volcanic events, has all drastically improved.
How would you feel if science discovered a cure for a deadly illness but the government prevented them from distributing it? That is about to be the case for volcano monitoring in the US.
The ‘very high threat volcanoes’ in the United States are Lassen, Long Valley Caldera (yes, there are more calderas than just Yellowstone), Shasta, Crater Lake, Hood, Newberry, South Sister, Baker, Glacier Peak, St. Helens, and of course – Rainier.
These span California, Oregon, and Washington.
Many of these are inadequately monitored – it takes money to do this. Equipment is expensive and people need to maintain this equipment.
You can see for yourself the areas that are affected by proposed cuts (below).
Within the cuts is suspending the National Volcano Early Warning System, which includes a lahar detection system for Mount Rainier.
Rainier has the potential to produce a Nevado Del Ruiz-style lahar, like the one that hit Armero.
Without warning, every child around Mt. Rainier (and other glaciated volcanoes) has the potential to become Omayra Sanchez.
With no warning, lahars can sweep rapidly through tourist areas, homes, businesses, and schools, giving people little chance to get out of the way.
This is infuriating.
We said never again.
We say that after every disaster – we will never forget, we send our prayers on social media, and we say never again.
There will be more eruptions in the United States. Reducing the support for the Volcano Hazards Program is actively inviting this disaster to occur again.
There are 169 potentially active volcanoes that could halt air travel, bring down powerlines (ash is heavy), stop sewage systems, contaminate water, kill engines that transport systems run on (e.g. cars), challenge anyone with respiratory issues, kill people and animals who are not evacuated, and much more. These issues go on and on after an eruption has occurred and eruptions can last for weeks, months, or years.
Having a plan in place in crucial in a country with such a large amount of volcanoes.
This plan includes evacuation plans and recovery plans that involve volcanologists, government, emergency managers, first responders, etc.
Basically – the people who you depend on, who you expect to help you when there is a disaster. Well, that requires government support. So when disaster strikes and people are headhunting for someone to blame, you know where to turn.
Do not blame the people who are dedicating their lives to reducing the effects of the disaster (a natural event is not a disaster unless it affects people), but the people who refuse to support them.
Janine Krippner, Volcanologist