U.S. Senator Ted Stevens examines volcano threat and monitoring
At the invitation of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Dr. John Eichelberger testified at a hearing held last week by the Commerce Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction. The hearing examined the current state of volcano monitoring and the potential threat volcanoes pose to aircraft and surrounding communities.
Stevens began the hearing by noting that Mt. St. Augustine, a volcano near Homer, Alaska, has erupted several times in recent months. The Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO), a joint initiative of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, has been monitoring Augustine since 1988.
Dr. Eichelberger, a professor of volcanology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and coordinating scientist at AVO, told the subcommittee about the impact volcanoes in Alaska can have on aviation. “Americans tend to think of our 49th state as remote,” he said. “It surprises people to think that flights between Eastern Asia and North America pass over Alaska, not Hawaii. Thus, some 25,000 people traverse Alaska’s skies every day, and Anchorage ties Tokyo in airfreight. Along this route are about 100 volcanoes capable of blasting ash to flight levels with potentially fatal results.”
Dr. Eichelberger told the subcommittee that volcano monitoring and observation funding is essential. “Volcanology is a case where a modest investment produces a large benefit in reducing the impact of a catastrophic natural event,” he stated. “For airlines, adequate monitoring means knowing when and where it is safe to fly. For communities, it is knowing when to protect facilities, how to advise people of health risks, and when to evacuate. By making information on the condition of Augustine Volcano instantly available to everyone, AVO has, I believe, vastly reduced the disruption caused by the current activity.”
AVO was formed in the late 1980s to monitor and minimize the effects of volcanic eruptions in Alaska. There are 41 historically active volcanoes in Alaska, and the state averages four days of volcanic ash activity each year. Anchorage International Airport, the largest cargo hub in the United States, is within striking distance of nine active volcanoes. Eruptions can have a significant impact on transportation in Alaska, where more than one-third of the population does not have access to the road system.
During the hearing, Stevens asked Dr. Eichelberger if AVO had received appropriate funding in the past. While stating that the enacted funding was sufficient, Dr. Eichelberger told the subcommittee, “We are down a million dollars, or about 15%, just as we faced this eruption [at Augustine]. I am very concerned about the future.”
Captain Terry McVenes, executive air safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, testified about the danger active volcanoes pose to pilots and their passengers. “Commercial turbojet aircraft are certified with multiple redundant systems to prevent total system failures. Yet even they can be rendered helpless by volcanic ash. Therefore, detection, prediction, and dissemination strategies are essential to avoid this hazard,” said McVenes. He also noted that most of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire volcanoes “are unmonitored for seismic activity, yet some of the world’s busiest air navigation routes crisscross these areas. Consequently, turbojet aircraft encountering volcanic ash could be in grave danger.” To highlight this point for the subcommittee, McVenes played an audiotape of conversations recorded in the cockpit of a KLM 747 in 1989. After flying into an ash cloud over Alaska, the aircraft’s four engines, radio, radar, and electronic systems failed, and it almost crashed with more than 200 passengers on board. After four minutes of rapid descent, the pilots were able to save the passengers and crew by manually restarting three of the aircraft’s engines.
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