The Hurricane of 1900 made landfall on the city of Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. It had estimated winds of 135 mph at landfall, making it a Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The estimated loss of life with most cited in official reports is eight thousand give or take a couple thousand. The death toll gives this storm the third highest number of casualties of any Atlantic hurricane and is to date the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. On September 4, the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau began receiving warnings from the central office in Washington, D.C. that a tropical storm had moved northward over Cuba. Back then, the Weather Bureau forecasters had no way of knowing where the storm was or where it was going. It was through the study of weather and atmospheric phenomenon that hurricane prediction techniques could be developed so that the accuracy of storm path forecasting can be estimated days in advance. Sure, some people probably thought it was stupid to spend good money trying to predict something that defies prediction. A hundred years makes a big difference.
In a speech full of criticism for the stimulus plan, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal singled out volcano monitoring as an example of government spending running amok. Mr. Jindal said that instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, deriding the $140 million appropriated to the U.S. Geological Survey as little more than pork in the stimulus package that tops three quarters of a trillion dollars. That probably doesn’t sound very prudent to people who live down in Galveston, Texas. But to those who live a little closer to the threat of flowing lava, it was a poor example to use.
There are five volcano observatories in the country. They are in Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, Washington, Hawaii, and Long Valley, California. Each has a series of seismic networks and other equipment for the specific purpose of monitoring a number of volcanoes in their vicinity. If a volcano is showing signs of activity, it could be the first signs of an eruption. So scientists follow that up by looking at other data from webcams, radar data and satellite imagery; fly overs from airplanes and etcetera. They pull all of that information together to give people the best information about what’s likely to happen so that people can plan. Sort of like what happens with pending hurricanes these days. Unfortunately, when it comes to monitoring volcanoes, we are more likely closer to the capabilities of weather forecasters in 1900 than weather forecasters of today.
It’s pretty obvious that people who live close to a volcano will be worried about flowing lava and mud. People who live further away can be affected by ash fall, which can typically travel distances measured in hundreds of miles. But many of us have little appreciation for our susceptibility to a full scale eruption from the Yellowstone Supervolcano. Hundreds of millennia ago, scientists believe that the Lava Creek eruption ejected well over two hundred cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. That’s enough volume to fill a space twenty miles long, ten miles wide, and more than a mile high. Geologists are closely monitoring the rise and fall of the Yellowstone Plateau, which averages movement of plus/minus a little more than half an inch on a yearly basis depending on changes in magma chamber pressure. However, the upward movement of the Yellowstone caldera floor, almost three inches per year in recent years, is more than three times greater than ever observed since such measurements began in 1923. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintains that they see no evidence that another cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. But the issue is worth monitoring, hence the need for more investment in volcano monitoring.
Not all of the money is devoted to just volcano monitoring. A lot of the money will go towards the maintenance and modernization of monitoring networks and other equipment. Quite possibly the investment may lead to lives being saved. If an evacuation due to eruption is ever needed, civil authorities will call it, but these scientist will do their best to give those authorities the best information so that people can get out of harm’s way. All of this for the low, low price of $140 million. Such spending is like insurance and is worth about one fifth of one percent of the stimulus package. And compared to the investment of $125 billion investment in financial institutions late last year, it’s a relative bargain.
In typical political fashion the Republican Party wants to attack science. These are the same people who wanted to cut stem cell research regardless of the potential for understanding how such cells work. Stem cell research could theoretically lead to procedures that could lead to nerve regeneration, helping the blind to see, the paralyzed to walk, the deaf to hear, and the cure for a whole host of diseases. But who cares about that kind of thing. It’s just pork. Yes it’s nice that we have developed our understanding of hurricanes and such. But we really don’t need to understand much else of our world.