Sen. Murkowski asks for U.S. volcano network

WASHINGTON — With her family trapped in Alaska by the eruptions of Mount Redoubt, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, took to the Senate floor this week to appeal for a stable source of funding for volcano research and monitoring.
“Recently, there were some comments made about federal spending for volcano monitoring and the suggestion that this might be wasteful,” she told the Senate. “I can assure you that monitoring volcanoes is critically important to the nation, and especially, to my home state of Alaska, where we are being held hostage by a volcano.”
Murkowski recounted the hundreds of flights canceled at the Anchorage airport, including the one scheduled to bring her sons back to the nation’s capital from spring vacation in Alaska.
Murkowski is seeking an annual appropriation of $15 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor, warn and protect Americans from harm from volcanic activity.
Her bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would set up a National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System at the federal agency.
In past years, funding for volcano monitoring has been inserted in the federal budget by former Sen. Ted Stevens in the accounts of both USGS and the Federal Aviation Administration.
But these type of earmarks are no longer in favor on Capitol Hill, and it is unclear if Murkowski can use her junior position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to secure the money for Alaska that Stevens provided.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory is one of five volcano observatories in the U.S. It monitors more than 30 active volcanoes in Alaska through a joint program involving the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the state and the USGS.
John Eichelberger, program coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program Office at USGS in Reston, Va., said the Murkowski bill would put into law a program that has been discussed for many years.
“This would be a big step forward for the USGS volcano hazards program,” Eichelberger said. “What the senator is talking about is authorizing a national-scale plan that has been under development for quite a few years to knit the five volcano observatories together into a national system, and upgrade monitoring at all U.S. volcanoes to a level commensurate with the threat they pose.”
Eichelberger, a former professor at UAF, said, “It is not just about Alaska, although Alaska does have more dangerous volcanoes than any other state.”
“If enacted and funds were approved, not only would it put AVO on a firm footing, but it would also improve our ability to mitigate volcano hazards,” he said.
Eichelberger said support for AVO built up slowly on Capitol Hill. Significant funding was approved after the last Redoubt eruption in 1989-90, which was disruptive to air travel.
“In the mid-1990s, Sen. Stevens began to add money to the observatory through the Federal Aviation Administration, and that permitted the observatory to expand out into the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands where the volcanoes are remote but still pose a threat to international air travel,” he said.
The FAA estimates that more than 80,000 large aircraft per year and 30,000 people per day fly over and downwind of many of Alaska’s volcanoes, mostly on the heavily traveled routes between Europe, North America and Asia.
In December 1989, a jet flying 150 miles northeast of Anchorage encountered an ash cloud from Mount Redoubt and lost power in all four engines. The plane, with more than 200 passengers on board, dropped more than 10,000 feet before the pilots were able to restart the engines and land safely.
Eichelberger said the proposed volcano early warning system has been endorsed by top federal officials, but the Obama administration has not taken a position on the Murkowski bill.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, however, recently praised the efforts of AVO to warn citizens of the impending eruptions at Mount Redoubt.
His comments rebutted statements made last month by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who criticized the allocation of federal funds for volcano monitoring in the economic stimulus package.

By:  Betty Mills