Empire Editorial: Alaska needs volcanic peace of mind

If the Earth is going to blow up, it’d be nice to know about it.

Too bad the U.S. Congress doesn’t think so.

Thanks to federal budget cuts, the Alaska Volcano Observatory can no longer monitor many volcanoes threatening to blow. The observatory’s funding peaked at $9 million several years ago. In 2013, the observatory’s budget dropped from $4.5 million to $4 million per year, not enough to maintain the entire network of seismic stations that give Alaskans early warning.

Fifty-two volcanoes have erupted in Alaska since record-keeping began with the Russians. Thirty-three of those have had sensors installed. Of those, five are no longer working. Five others work only intermittently.

This month, the observatory issued a bulletin: “The Alaska Volcano Observatory has experienced numerous seismic station failures and our ability to monitor activity at some volcanoes has failed or is heavily impaired.”

Among those “some volcanoes” are mountains that have erupted ferociously in recent memory, scattering ash and debris over wide areas.

The consequences can be deadly. In 1989, one year after the observatory was founded, Mount Redoubt erupted near Anchorage. A Boeing 747 flew through the volcanic ash cloud, which choked all four of the aircraft’s engines. The plane’s pilots managed to restart those engines before the aircraft crashed into Cook Inlet, but it was a close call. All four engines needed to be replaced, and mechanics remarked that it seemed as if the plane had been sandblasted in flight.

In 2009, Redoubt erupted again, one month after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized the observatory as a wasteful use of tax dollars. When Redoubt blew, the observatory provided crucial information that minimized the impact on air travel across Alaska.

Ground-based sensors can detect building pressure before an eruption. Without that advanced warning, the volcano observatory can only confirm that a volcano has erupted. It cannot say that one is preparing to erupt.

Alaska’s economy relies upon its aviation industry. If a volcano is building toward an eruption, planners need time to reroute planes to safety. Bush communities cannot survive without air service, and Alaska’s economy will suffer without air travel to bring tourists, and more importantly, supplies to roadless communities.

Repairing Alaska’s network of volcanic sensors will cost between $2 million and $2.5 million more per year, administrators say.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation should make this funding a priority. Without it, Alaska risks a much larger hit to its economy.

We understand that Congress is trying to cut its budget, not add to it, but peace of mind shouldn’t have a price tag.

• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, rustan.burton@juneauempire.com; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, abby.lowell@juneauempire.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, charles.westmoreland@juneauempire.com; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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