Dangerous Glacier Peak volcano minimally monitored

DARRINGTON — Glacier Peak is the second-most dangerous volcano in the Cascades, after Mount St. Helens, and yet it has only one seismic monitoring station.

Mount Rainier, by contrast, has nine stations. Mount Hood has five. Mount Baker has two. Newberry volcano in Oregon has nine stations, Crater Lake three.

Because of federal budget cuts due to the sequestration, it likely will be a while longer before scientists are able to add enough stations to fully monitor Glacier Peak, officials say.

Plans were in the works to place five more monitors on or close to the volcano as early as the end of this summer.

Now, that will have to wait at least another year, said John Ewert, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.

“Right now, Glacier Peak is a volcano that we consider to be a very high threat volcano,” he said. “It is at the present time the least well-monitored of all the Cascade volcanoes.”

Glacier Peak is 10,541 feet high and located southeast of Darrington in the Cascade Mountains, just inside the far eastern edge of Snohomish County. Because it’s tucked behind other mountains, it’s not as visible or as well-known as other nearby peaks.

Glacier Peak has had some huge eruptions in its history, sending walls of mud, rocks, trees and melted glacier water roaring down the Stillaguamish and Skagit valleys, obliterating everything in their path. Darrington is built on the remnants of several of these lahars, as the flows are called.

Glacier Peak also has exploded fairly frequently compared to other Cascade volcanoes, Ewert said.

The peak last erupted about 240 years ago, just before the Revolutionary War, and its last major eruption was about 1,800 years ago. Several are believed to have occurred before then.

That history makes it the second most explosive mountain in the Cascade Range in terms of both the power and frequency of its eruptions, Ewert said.

The seismic sensors come in different shapes and sizes, with one type consisting of about a 3-by-3 foot box with a pole and antenna sticking up to send the data.

The monitors detect small movements within the mountain — little tremors that could add up to something big.

It was this type of information that alerted officials, and in turn the public, to the eventual eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Ewert said.

The better the monitoring, the earlier the potential warning before an explosion, he said.

Also, work on completing a geological map of Glacier Peak, detailing its eruptive history, is being delayed as well, officials said.

“I cancelled my Glacier Peak fieldwork last summer and only lately decided there were sufficient funds for a short visit in September this year,” said Tom Sisson, scientist in charge at the USGS volcano center in Menlo Park, Calif., who is compiling the historical data.

Ewert had to cut $225,000 from his budget this year off last year’s total — between 30 and 40 percent, he said.

Scientists have to get into the wilderness to scout potential sites for the monitoring stations. Researchers are now doing this work near Glacier Peak and expect to have some of these spots identified by the end of this summer, Ewert said.

Even to do this much, “we kind of scraped our change up from other projects that had to be done.”

Once the sites are chosen, the stations must go through an environmental permitting process. Though the stations are small, the time and energy spent gathering data for these permits can cost $10,000 apiece, according to Ewert.

It was hoped that work could be done this year, but it had to be put off at least until next summer, he said.

“That may not happen, it may have to be pushed to 2015 or ‘16. It makes it a more drawn out process.”

Other mountains got in line ahead of Glacier Peak for new monitoring equipment recently. This was either because they were near major cities, such as Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, or were more easily accessible for researchers, such as Newberry Volcano in Oregon, Ewert said. Mount Rainier was another undermonitored volcano, he said.

“Our science budgets haven’t budged in a number of years and we’ve had a number of things we’ve had to respond to,” Ewert said. “We’ve knocked off some of the low-hanging fruit.”

Glacier Peak is remote and USGS researchers have to hike in and camp. “We’ve got a two-month window every year when Glacier Peak is workable,” Ewert said.

Another casualty of the sequestration is a laser-mapping system called lidar, that provides scientists with more detailed information about terrain. “It is expensive, and I basically had to take that off the table this year completely,” he saidl.

Cutting lidar accounted for about $100,000 of the reduction for his budget this year, Ewart said.

Much of the other expense for scientists is travel, particularly if they fly, he said.

Attendance at conferences was included in the cutbacks. Critics have said this isn’t such a bad thing.

“There is no question that federal employees should have some travel and go to some conferences, but most of it has nothing to do with their jobs,” U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told the New York Times. “It’s a perk.”

Ewart disagrees, saying that important exchanges of information take place at such meetings.

A plan is in place for communication between agencies and with the public in the event of an eruption, called the Mount Baker/Glacier Peak Coordination Plan.

Some warnings and protections are in place, said John Pennington, director of the Department of Emergency Management for Snohomish County.

“We could always use more data but I do believe we have enough indicators at least for emergency management in Snohomish County to sufficiently receive warning of volcanic activity in and around the Cascade Range,” he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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