The Alaska Volcano Observatory relies on a network of buried, solar-powered seismic instruments to predict eruptions at 32 volcanoes around the state.
But along with advisories about volcanic unrest, the Anchorage-based observatory's Web site now includes this eye-catching alert: "Loss of critical volcano monitoring information in Alaska."
The observatory says deferred maintenance due to years of federal funding cuts has caused ground instruments at five different volcanoes to fail completely.
That's left scientists without access to the seismic monitors they use to predict eruptions before they occur.
"We're not able to provide any kind of an advanced warning," said John Power, the observatory's scientist-in-charge. "We would be in what's called a detection mode."
The U.S. Geological Survey operates the Anchorage-based center in partnership with the University of Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
Since 2009 -- when Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal famously derided volcano monitoring as waste -- the observatory has lost millions to vanished earmarks and the automatic spending cuts of last year's sequestration, officials say.
Of the 200 pieces of monitoring equipment stationed on Alaskan volcanoes, about half are working on any given day, according to Power, though some are expected to return to functioning once snow melts off the solar panels that power them.
One of the five volcanoes without seismic monitoring is Aniakchak, which last erupted in 1931 -- in what's considered the second largest eruption in modern Alaska history.
'THAT'S WHERE THE RISK IS'
Monitoring equipment on three volcanoes -- Wrangell, Little Sitkin, Semisopochnoi -- failed in prior years.
Aniakchak, a stunning volcano with a six-mile caldera on the Alaska Peninsula, lost monitoring capacity at the end of January. Fourpeaked volcano, in the Katmai National Preserve about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, dropped offline this month.
Other volcanoes are experiencing partial failures of equipment.
The seismometers allow researchers to see earthquakes and other geologic unrest suggesting an eruption over the coming days, weeks or months.
Given funding shortfalls, the center has prioritized monitoring for the state's five most dangerous volcanoes near Anchorage or in the Aleutian Islands: Spurr, Redoubt, Augustine, Akutan and Makushin.
The five experiencing total failures aren't considered as high priority because of the relative infrequency of eruptions and proximity to communities or other facilities like seafood proceessing plants.
Power said volcanoes considered lower risk still need to be monitored in case an eruption is imminent.
"Little Sitkin is in the far western Aleutians. It seems very remote and it is," Power said. "But you go up 30,000 feet you've got a whole lot of jets going by every day ... That's where the risk is."
Alaska's aviation industry is all too aware of the potential problems volcanoes can pose.
The massive eruption at Mount Redoubt in 1989 nearly caused a major air disaster. A Boeing 747 on approach to Anchorage from Amsterdam flew through Redoubt's ash cloud. All four of the jet's engines shut down. The plane, with 244 passengers and crew, dropped into a steep gliding descent for two miles before the plane's flight crew cleared the cloud and restarted the engines.
Redoubt erupted again in 2009, disrupting air travel for weeks.
The Alaska Air Carriers Association and other aviation interests are watching the observatory's funding situation closely.
"Obviously the air carriers are very cautious about flying in or near volcanic ash," said John Parrott, manager at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Air traffic in and out of the airport dropped off significantly for a month around that 2009 Redoubt eruption, Parrott said.
"It clearly is a concern of the international carriers and domestic carriers particularly at night or in the weather where they can't see the cloud," he said.
The observatory, created back in 1988 during the heyday of appropriations from the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, is no longer the darling of federal budget cycles.
Volcanos and money for the gadgets that monitor them took a hit starting in 2009. That year, Jindal denounced federal funding to pay for volcano monitoring as wasteful spending -- a month before Mt. Redoubt erupted.
Funding cuts began with the loss of a major Federal Aviation Administration earmark, according to Charles Mandeville, the Virginia-based Volcano Hazards Program coordinator for USGS. The next two years, the program got $3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, but that money didn't go toward routine operations and maintenance.
Sequestration caused the observatory's budget for 2013 to drop to $4 million from $4.5 million in 2012, Mandeville said. It's projected to be $4.15 to $4.2 million this year, though adjustments are still being made.
Seismometers buried in remote volcanic ground are designed with a five-year maintenance cycle, Power said.
"Occasionally things break down earlier. They're expensive to get to, parts are expensive," he said. "What happens to things in Alaska when they don't receive adequate maintenance? They have begun to fail for one reason or another."
COULD BE A WHILE
Bringing Alaska's volcano monitoring network back on line quickly would take $2 million to $2.5 million extra funding a year, something along the lines of that FAA earmark, Mandeville said in an email.
With $400,000 additional spending a year, it would take several years before monitoring comes back, he said.
Maintaining equipment at these remote sites is logistically difficult and increasingly expensive as parts and fuel costs rise. Helicopters ferry crews to locations that need repair.
"Bear in mind that the field season time window of opportunity also plays a role here, in that some of the work could easily be precluded by severe weather," Mandeville wrote.
Alaska's congressional delegation supports the center's efforts, according to statements provided by their offices.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Interior Appropriations Committee that oversees USGS and volcano monitoring funding, during this year's budget process asked for "a sufficient level of funding ... so that seismic activities continue to be detected rapidly and important information can be disseminated to the public," according to the Appropriations bill language.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory's Web site leaves users with a reassuring message.
"We continue to monitor all Alaskan volcanoes with satellite and regional infrasound data" and some with real-time GPS and Web cams, the message reads. "Although we cannot forecast eruptions with these data, we may detect eruptions with a delay of tens of minutes to hours in some cases. However poor weather, common in the North Pacific, can also prohibit detection of significant eruptions using these alternate data sources."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
Frontier Scientists blog
By ZAZ HOLLANDER