Volcano 'cowboys' who ride a ring of fire

Scientists tap everything from gas-sniffing devices to GPS systems to better forecast when a mountain will stir.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the lookout on Coldwater Ridge, Mount St. Helens seems relatively benign. Puffs of white steam drift languidly into a brilliant blue sky. Aside from the occasional hawk's whistle, the only sound is of Lilliputian aircraft buzzing around the giant crater, bearing scientific instruments sniffing for gases that might be portentous.

Has North America's most famous volcano gone back to sleep? Or is it merely dozing, preparing to snort and grumble toward another major eruption?

Experts who study volcanoes and the earthquakes that attend them can't be sure. Like TV weathermen they hedge their pronouncements.

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"We prefer 'forecast' to 'prediction,'" quips geologist William Scott, a 30-year veteran with the US Geological Survey (USGS). "There's more room to hide."

But compared to 1980, when Mount St. Helens suddenly became 1,300 feet shorter in a violent, expulsive spasm, scientists today are much better equipped to take the mountain's pulse, to understand what may be happening deep inside. And to offer - if not predictions, exactly - better-informed warnings about imminent volcanic activity.

New era of high-tech

With things like Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, space-based radar imagery, microtechnology, and much more powerful computers they can do far more now. Like measuring earth movement in millimeters, analyzing gases to determine the content of magma (underground lava), evaluating such information in real time and communicating it instantly to other scientists around the world as well as to civil defense officials in nearby communities potentially vulnerable to volcanic blast and subsequent landslides and flooding.

Following the military's lead, they're also experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles - tiny ground-controlled airplanes packed with instruments - to monitor the mountain at night and in bad weather.

"With these new tools we're literally seeing things we could not have seen before," says USGS geologist Dan Dzurisin, who began his career studying volcanoes in Hawaii then came here shortly after St. Helens blew, killing 57 people in the largest landslide in recorded history.

In September, the first major activity since the mid-1980s started with thousands of small earthquakes per hour, new lava being pushed up from underground, substantial ground deformation inside the crater, and large burps of steam and ash.

Since then, things have settled down some. Still, the equivalent of a large dump truck full of new molten rock continues to reach the surface inside the crater every second, creating a bulge in the glacier there and spitting steam when it hits snow and ice. This lobe - upwards of 1,000 degrees and glowing at night - is now nearly the size of an aircraft carrier. Or as William Steele at the University of Washington seismology lab in Seattle puts it, "The mountain is still chugging along merrily."

Risky business

Scientists here have been portrayed as "Volcano Cowboys" (the title of a book describing their work), and there certainly can be danger to it. Entering the crater by helicopter - even for a few minutes to set up a new package of detection instruments - is highly risky business. The Cascades Volcano Observatory here in Vancouver, Wash., is named for David Johnston, the young USGS scientist killed on Mount St. Helens when it blew 24 years ago.

But that's not how they see themselves. A visitor finds them more like lab nerds than risk-taking mountain climbers. The place is littered with PhD's. And for all the advanced electronic gear, there's a sense that these men and women could build a spaceship of found objects in their garage. Swiss Army knives are a favored tool. Duct tape is kept handy. Someone dashed off to Ace Hardware to find just the right container for collecting and sorting volcanic ash.

Still, they keep their hiking boots, climbing helmets, and survival gear ready to go, and there's a palpable sense of excitement in their labs and offices - which tend to be out at the mountain these days rather than here at headquarters.

"The onset of [volcanic] restlessness can happen very quickly," says geologist Scott. "You can't really rule out that something large can happen without warning, and very quickly you could have a hazardous situation."

Ultimate 'teachable moment'

From northern California to southern British Columbia, the Cascade Mountain Range is dotted with volcanoes, part of the "ring of fire" that encircles the Pacific Ocean. Many of these North American volcanoes are considered active, and some of the most prominent - Mount Hood and Mount Rainier - are very near large populations.

Should something major happen again (or rather, when the inevitable major volcanic event happens), the new technology and the new attitude influenced by those nearby populations give a sober cast to the work.

"We have this obligation not to let anybody get hurt," says USGS geologist Marianne Guffanti. That means volcanologists as well as the local populace.

"As a young scientist, I had a lot of fun in Hawaii," says Dr. Dzurisin. "Coming here, I came to the realization - and it might seem trite - that volcanoes in fact are very dangerous."

"A lot of our responsibility as government scientists is to mitigate the negative impacts of eruptions, to help prevent them from becoming natural disasters," he says, "and the way to do that is to better understand how volcanoes work."

For volcanologists, especially the younger ones just out of grad school, the recent activity at Mount St. Helens is the ultimate teachable moment.

"We really want to take maximum advantage of it," says Dzurisin. "We want to bring new tools to bear, new perspectives. We want to get it as right as we can because it is a rare opportunity."

"It's a great time to be a volcanologist," he says.

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