When the earth rumbles, slides, or erupts, 'who you gonna call'? Earth scientists reduce risk.
The need to curb manmade climate change has the world's attention. But what of the natural environmental dangers that humans do not cause and cannot control?Skip to next paragraph
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Earth scientists such as volcanologist Jonathan Fink say these too should be front and center in environmental planning. Humans can't curb volcanic eruptions, earthquake shaking, or natural climate change. But they can reduce the risk to themselves through land-use planning, building codes, and community preparedness. The underlying question, Dr. Fink says, is how to maintain public attention to this when destructive events happen only once in two decades or so.
A geologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Fink joined fellow scientists to highlight this concern during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month in San Francisco. They said they are encouraged by progress in scientific understanding of natural dangers. But they lamented the general lack of national and local public commitment to sustaining that research and putting the knowledge to practical use in community planning.
For example, the volcanologists think the next 10 years can bring a major improvement to volcano forecasting. Right now, Fink said, volcanologists can't satisfactorily predict large eruptions with major fatalities or ash eruptions that can clog jet aircraft engines. He listed what he called the "big questions" in volcano forecasting: Is magma rising beneath a volcano? How much? How fast? What type? Will it explode? When will unrest end? These questions are hard to answer even at intensely monitored hot spots such as Mexico's Popocatepetl or Italy's Vesuvius. Yet, Fink expects that "in the next 10 years ... we may approach big answers" to these "big questions."
Stanford University geophysicist Paul Segall agrees that "there's a confluence of a lot of things going on that should improve our ability to make predictions in the next 10 years." He notes that satellites can pick up millimeter-size changes in a volcano's surface that indicate magma build up. Other scientists described how portable seismic instruments can radio data with which computers create three-dimensional images of a volcano's chambers. The global-positioning-satellite navigation system can detect bulging ground. Gas "sniffers" can monitor telltale chemical changes in volcano breath.
Prevention is doable
Put all this together over the next decade, and "unlike earthquake prediction, we can actually do something about volcanoes," Dr. Segall says. Fink adds that, while forecasters had only 3 months warning of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, he hopes for 6 months to a year of eruption warning by 2010.
But there's a caveat.
Fink noted that, in the United States, the know-how to put scientific knowledge to practical use is embodied largely in US Geological Survey (USGS) experts. Many of these are due to retire over the next decade with no replacements in sight. Asked about this again last week, Fink said he thinks "this is a real issue." He explained that "we need to get young people into the program ... to gain experience working with the older people." Otherwise valuable expertise will be lost.
Yet young seismologists see better career prospects in academia or industry. As memory of Mt. St. Helens fades, Fink considers the lack of national commitment to a strong volcanology program that can attract talent to be one of the biggest volcano risks the US now faces.
Waverly Person, chief of the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., also sees lack of public commitment as a significant environmental risk. He explained in a telephone interview that this has not shown up as a shortage of replacement personnel in USGS seismology "at this time." However, it is often reflected in public reluctance to embody seismic scientific knowledge in strict building codes and local zoning.