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November 9th, 2016
International Volcano Scientists Unite

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For the first time, the United States will host the international Volcano Observatory Best Practices workshop, previously held only in Italy. The workshop will take place this month in Vancouver, Washington. It is designed specifically for volcano observatories around the world and their staff to exchange ideas and best practices with each other. 

“In order for volcano observatories to create the very best assessments, they collaborate and exchange information, methods and insights with international counterparts,” said John Pallister, the chief of the joint U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Agency for International Development Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. “One of the many ways that scientists collaborate is through meeting face-to-face at international workshops.”

This year, the VOBP workshop will focus on the importance of developing long-term hazard assessments.  Representatives from more than 20 volcanically active countries will share strategies for successfully creating hazard maps and communicating risk.

Damage from Nevado del Ruiz Lahar

In November 1985, a lahar (volcanic mudflow) originating from Nevado del Ruiz volcano inundated the town of Armero, destroying all infrastructure in its path and killing 23,000 people. VDAP was developed in response to this tragedy. Photograph credit: USGS/VDAP

Mt. Pinatubo Monitoring Equipment Installation

Staff from VDAP and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology install electronic tiltmeters to monitor inflation of the ground at Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines in June 1991. Photograph credit: USGS/VDAP

Focus on Long-term Hazard Assessments

In 1985, a tragic lahar from Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia killed more than 23,000 people. The loud rush of thick, gray, muddy water raced down through the once-quiet and green town of Armero and other surrounding communities. The swiftly flowing muck uprooted trees and lifted enormous boulders as if they were feathers, carrying giant debris miles away. Homes were buried in the thick, concrete-like mixture, and vital bridges were rendered useless.

The VOBP workshop is critical to helping observatories around the world prevent eruptions from becoming disasters like Nevado del Ruiz. There are approximately 1,550 potentially active volcanoes globally, highlighting the need for international collaboration to help save lives and property.

One major responsibility of volcano scientists is developing volcano hazard assessments.

“Historically, volcano hazard zonation maps and assessments are created by scientists who study the eruption frequency and distribution of eruption products at individual volcanoes,” said Wendy Stovall, a geologist at the USGS. “Increasingly, this geologic information is added to databases where dynamic hazards maps can be developed along with longer-term models and shorter-term forecasts of eruption impacts.”

These maps and assessments are vital to evaluating the most likely hazards on a day-to-day basis as an active eruption progresses.

 Mt. Rainier Lahar Hazard Map

Volcano hazard map showing the extent of lahar hazards in towns and valleys surrounding Mt. Rainier in Washington. Image credit: USGS

Leveraging Science Diplomacy

One of the U.S. organizations arranging this workshop is VDAP, which helps developing nations worldwide in reducing the risk from volcanic eruptions.  

VDAP is the first worldwide volcano crisis response team and was established in response to the tragic eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano.

VDAP was developed in 1986 by the USGS and USAID’s U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The USGS provides scientific and technical expertise for volcano monitoring, as well as eruption forecasting and response. USAID/OFDA is responsible for leading the U.S. government’s response to disasters overseas and has provided more than $33 million in support for VDAP since it was established.

When invited by the host country, VDAP supports international scientists by deploying experts and monitoring equipment during volcanic crises, as well as offering training to establish and enhance the capabilities of volcano observatories in developing nations.

This engagement not only benefits developing nations, but also gives USGS scientists a global perspective.  By learning from other international experts and practicing their craft at volcanic crises worldwide, VDAP is able to connect lessons and strategies taken from a diverse set of international volcano responses in order to better mitigate risk back at home.

According to the USGS’s Pallister, the VOBP workshop gives the agency the opportunity to simultaneously engage counterparts from volcano observatories around the world in a manner that would not be possible during a crisis. “In doing so,” Pallister said, “we further build international collaborations as we develop best practices in assessing volcanic hazard and risk. Such best practices are critical to saving lives and property during volcanic crises, both at home and abroad. Holding the VOBP in the U.S. for the first time during VDAP’s 30th anniversary is especially fitting.”

The VOBP workshop is convened by the USGS, the Instituto Nazional di Geofisica et Vulcanologia of Italy, and USAID/OFDA. Additional support is provided by the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of Earth’s Interior and its commission, the World Organization of Volcano Observatories.

2013 VOBP Group Photograph

Participants from the 2nd Volcano Observatory Best Practices workshop in Sicily, Italy, November 2013. Photograph credit: Instituto Nazional di Geofisica et Vulcanologia

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