Review: Budget cuts pare real time monitoring of volcanoes

The Alaska Volcano Observatory can no longer seismically monitor five volcanoes with real-time equipment to detect imminent eruptions. Such equipment is especially important in helping pilots receive up to the minute warnings about spewing ash that can cause engine failures and other problems.

Alaska has 52 active volcanoes, with many of them located on the Aleutians Islands along international air routes between Europe, North America and Asia. Alaska Airlines officials said the observatory, funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, provides a crucial service, including early warnings of seismic changes that may portend an impending eruption.

Monitors need to be operating all the time, not just during major eruptions, said Betty Bollert, an Alaska Airlines dispatcher. The plane dropped more than two miles in five minutes before the crew was able to restart the engines and land safely in Anchorage. Worldwide, hundreds of flights are diverted each year because of volcanic activity.

In 2010, an eruption in Iceland spread debris over Northern Europe, threatening most flight routes from the East Coast to Europe, and within Europe itself. The Alaska volcano monitoring system, first created in 1988, is intended to help pilots avoid such problems.

For example, gone is a plan to install seismic monitors at Cleveland Volcano, a remote mountain on an uninhabited island in the Aleutians. The volcano experienced a low-level eruption earlier this month that continues to discharge steam, gas and heat, although no ash clouds have been detected in the past week.

In Alaska, 32 volcanoes once had 200 working seismic instruments. Now 80 of those instruments have fallen into disrepair and can't be fixed due to the USGS budget cuts. That means five of those volcanoes aren't monitored electronically at all, and the number could rise if more instruments go without maintenance.

The observatory still uses satellite data, infrasound and reports from pilots and others to detect eruptions. But none of those offer real-time information. Sound waves picked up the Cleveland eruption, but it took 40 minutes for the data to reach scientists in Anchorage, 940 miles northeast of the volcano.