Volcano Monitoring Systems Essential for Developing Countries

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A photo showing the author turning over a cover crop of winter rye on Jan. 2, 2012. In three of the past six years, ground freeze-up, which historically occurred by November, has been delayed into January.

Adequate volcano monitoring stations are vital for developing countries, officials agreed at an international meeting of the Seismological Society of America in April. These countries are using advanced seismic technologies that they are unable to maintain due to bad power sources, poor infrastructure, and inadequate information and communication technology. By investing in less costly technologies, developing countries can have more funding to monitor volcanic activity and promote preparedness, the society says.

Monitoring seismic activity helps reduce imminent danger, decrease economic setbacks that result from disasters, and save lives. Satisfactory volcano observing stations help predict and diminish risks as well as improve the understanding of volcanic hazards. For example, adequate systems in Merapi, Indonesia, warned scientists of an impending volcanic eruption allowing them to save 10,000 lives in October 2010, according to society members.

Image of Gunung Rinjani in Indonesia. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gunung Rinjani in Indonesia. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The major hindrance stressed at the meeting was the lack of funding for the upkeep of stations. Developing countries tend to invest too much of their funds at the start-up, which leaves them unable to pay for adequate preparation later on. Also, demoralization occurs among government workers because of extremely low wages and lack of resources. This causes the best engineers to go to the private sector in order to earn a higher income.

Along with sustainability of these volcano-monitoring stations, maintaining and knowing how to use the costly equipment proves to be a major challenge. Also, different national institutions within each country compete against each other in building stations and receive different amounts of support from other countries. This constant competition does not let the developing countries put forth their efforts into one successful volcano monitoring station. These stations also face extreme weather conditions.

An example of a monitoring station is the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) established in the early 1990s to monitor seismic activity in Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles. MVO focuses on monitoring, researching, communicating, educating, and advising to reduce the impact of volcanic activity. MVO is made up of a group of geoscientists, electronics, and computer specialists, science technicians, and administrative professionals and deals largely with seismic risk assessment. Funding comes from the government of Montserrat (GoM) and private sources.

Image of a GPS Monitoring Station on RÌ©union Island. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

GPS Monitoring Station on RÌ©union Island. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Andrew Lockhart is a geophysicist for the U.S. Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), which has established volcanic monitoring networks at more than 40 volcanoes in 13 developing countries. Lockhart says in a SciDev article, ‰ÛÏIt is important for policymakers to note that, although monitoring ability and hazard mitigation increase with the number and variety of monitoring sites, it is also true that a very limited network of well-placed telemetred seismic stations [to remotely measure and transmit information] provide a great deal of value in hazard mitigation.”

By partnering with VDAP, Colombia has been able to procure new equipment, receive advisors, and have better volcano station training to prepare for better warning systems. Similarly, Ecuador has also partnered with VDAP. Volcanologist Patricia Mothes of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute said in a SciDev article that they ‰ÛÏhave to monitor 11 volcanoes without a proper budget for training. We work 24-hour days because we don’t have enough staff.‰Û

Image of Harrat Rahat, Saudi Arabia's largest lava field. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Harrat Rahat, Saudi Arabia’s largest lava field. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Saudi Arabia has a lot to gain from volcanic disaster preparedness programs. The western area of the country is at risk from an atypical type of earthquake that is caused by failed volcanic eruptions. The earthquakes are produced by magma being pushed through the rock two kilometers below the surface. This trapped magma caused more than 30,000 earthquakes between April and June 2009, according to SciDev. Hani Zahran, director of the National Centre for Earthquakes and Volcanoes at the Saudi Geological Survey, said in a SciDev article that a seismic monitoring system to assess and analyze seismic data has been established by The Geological Survey to prevent future disasters.