Summary of Hearings on Volcanic Hazards (3-20-06)

  • March 16, 2006: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction hearing on "Volcanic Hazards - Impacts on Aviation"

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction
Hearing on "Volcanic Hazards - Impacts on Aviation"
March 16, 2006

Witnesses:
Captain Terry McVenes, Executive Air Safety Chairman, Airline Pilots Association
Dr. John Eichelberger, Professor of Volcanology, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Coordinating Scientist, Alaska Volcano Observatory
James E. Quick, Program Coordinator for the Volcano Hazards Program, U.S. Geological Survey

On March 16, the Disaster Prevention and Prediction Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to discuss the threats to aviation posed by volcanic eruptions. "Volcanic ash poses … a grave threat to Alaska," commented Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chair of the full committee.

Captain Terry McVenes, Executive Air Safety Chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, testified that ash from volcanic eruptions poses significant dangers to commercial airlines. He noted that in the past 25 years, commercial flights through ash have resulted in over $250 million worth of damage and endangered thousands of lives. McVenes told senators that commercial flights are jeopardized by a lack of warning about volcanic eruptions in sparsely populated areas, particularly the Pacific "Ring of Fire." "The majority of the Ring's volcanoes are un-monitored, yet some of the world's busiest air navigation routes crisscross these areas," he said. McVenes called on Congress to increase federal support to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to improve "the necessary detection and prediction resources."

In his opening remarks, Dr. John Eichelberger, coordinating scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) echoed McVenes' request for financial resources, adding "Volcanology is a case where a modest investment produces a large benefit in reducing the impact of catastrophic events." He noted that each day approximately 25,000 people fly over 100 potentially active volcanoes, half of which are located in Alaska. Eichelberger added that AVO's geophysical monitoring of 30 Alaskan volcanoes has resulted in timely predictions of eruptions, successful evacuations, and life-saving flight cancellations and diversions. "AVO's successful prediction of and response to the eruption of Augustine Volcano makes the case for continued support of this effort all the more compelling," he told senators.

The final witness to testify was James Quick, Program Coordinator of the USGS Volcano Hazards Program. Quick focused his remarks on the need to improve and expand nationwide monitoring capabilities and instrumentation. He also explained that the USGS, NOAA, and the FAA currently share information during eruptions, adding that the USGS is actively working to improve communications with these agencies.

Following the testimony, Stevens asked whether monitoring the eruption of Augustine has drained USGS resources and prevented adequate monitoring of other volcanoes. Quick responded that directing extra funds towards Augustine has prevented the expansion of the monitoring network, but has not resulted in the termination of any current monitoring. He added that monitoring "will be the last thing we turn off."

Stevens also expressed his displeasure that earmarks for AVO have been eliminated from the President's budget request, cutting $1million from AVO. Eichelberger told Stevens that past funding has been sufficient, but that a 15% cut during an active eruption will strain AVO's budget. Stevens voiced concern that Congress sees AVO as "another piece of pork" and told the panel he will do what he can to restore funding for volcanic monitoring.

For the full text of witness testimony and an audio recording of the hearing, click here.

-JAF

Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern.

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Last updated on March 20, 2006.