Summary of NRC Report, Review of the U.S. Geological Survey's Volcano Hazards Program

The National Research Council Report (NRC), Review of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Volcano Hazards Program was created in response to the increase in human activity near volcanos.  The Volcano Hazards Program (VHP) may have a new role to play in assessment and mitigation of volcanic hazards in light of demographic changes.  The booming population has put more people and property in proximity to many active volcanos, especially in the northwestern United States.  Air traffic routes pass over more than one hundred active volcanos in Russia and Alaska.  Further, the global nature of the economy increases the chance that a volcano in another part of the world will harm operations of a U.S. company and interrupt the flow of goods to domestic clients.  The committee that produced this NRC report was charged with determining if the VHP is carrying out its functions -- assessment, monitoring, crisis response, and outreach -- in a way that is useful to the public, government, and private needs.

The early VHP focused on hazards associated with the relatively calm Hawaiian style of volcanism.  The explosive eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980 alerted the VHP to another type of volcanism occurring on U.S. soil.  The program was restructured in order to meet the challenges of the newly realized hazards.  The structure of the VHP at present closely resembles that of the late 1980's.  The report found that the fact that program has not changed recently has both a positive and negative effect on it's function.  On the positive side the personnel are very experienced, knowledgeable and dedicated.  The down side is that few new scientists have been hired into the program in fifteen years.  Continuity in the program will be difficult to maintain as the old staff begins to retire.  In addition to staffing problems the budget of the VHP has been reduced because many of it's research activities have been moved to other programs or agencies.  Although the VHP has been successful in performing it's role up to the present time, the fear is that in future volcanic emergencies the program will not be prepared to respond quickly or assess eruption behavior because of lack of practical experience and resources.

The primary role of the VHP is mitigation of volcanic hazards and it is important that the program continues to perform this role in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.  The report emphasized two suggestions that are revisited throughout the report in conjunction with other recommendations.  The VHP needs to more efficiently use the program's limited financial and human resources, and strengthen it's working relationship with other federal agencies, international counterparts, the private sector, and universities.

The report stated that the manner in which the VHP carries out hazard assessments is not efficient.  One scientist has been responsible for the assessment of one volcano, which can take ten years to complete.  A new assessment format will permit a team of scientists with various expertise to cover a volcano in much less time.  In this way, pertinent information concerning a particular site can be disseminated to those at risk, and other volcanic researchers quickly.  The new assessment style has been used successfully by the VHP at Mount Rainier.  The report recommends that preliminary study of all of the active Aleutian volcanoes be undertaken by the Alaskan Volcano Observatory.  The Aleutian volcanoes have not been studied to date, but there are considerable hazards associated with volcanic activity in the chain.  Another recommendation is for the VHP to be actively updating web databases with new information to allow for timely public access to data, and allow the VHP to more easily collaborate with outside organizations.

Keeping track of activity and potential activity of all volcanoes around the world is an enourmous and complex task.  The VHP has been charged with this large responsibility, but with limited resources can no longer be effective in this role.  The USGS commissioned this report to sort out the specific role that the VHP should play in the process of analysing potential threats posed by active volcanoes and mitigating risks to life and property.  This report, released late in 2000 can be viewed online on the National Academies Press website (

Sources: National Research Council Report

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Contributed by AGI/AAPG Spring 2001 intern Mary H. Patterson

Posted February 16, 2001

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