Volcano Watch: U.S. Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in 26th Year

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

When Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia, began showing signs of restless activity in December 1984 after more than a century of quiet, a formal volcano-monitoring and risk-reduction program did not exist in the country.

Volcano Disaster Assistance Program website

Volcano Disaster Assistance Program website

Nearly a year later—after seismic monitoring was installed in July 1985 and a volcano hazard map was completed in October with international assistance—the volcano erupted on November 13, 1985. The eruption was hidden in clouds and later in darkness, and fast-moving lahars (volcanic debris flows) raced down rivers draining the volcano.

Tragically, the eruption warnings were not disseminated widely and acted upon swiftly enough and, within hours, the lahars killed at least 25,000 people and injured nearly 5,000.

In the months following this tragedy, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) enlisted the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to help create a program to reduce fatalities and economic losses in countries experiencing a volcano crisis. The two agencies founded a partnership known as the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in 1986, headquartered at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

Now in its 26th year of operation, VDAP’s strategy of risk reduction includes providing technical expertise during volcanic emergencies, developing and deploying volcano monitoring networks on active or restless volcanoes, and providing training and workshops to host-country scientists and emergency management officials. It has proven extremely effective in saving lives, reducing economic costs from eruptions, and building strong in-country risk-reduction capability.

Responding to official requests from other countries through the U.S. State Department, VDAP has participated in 25 major volcano crises, helped install volcano-monitoring systems in more than a dozen countries, and trained hundreds of scientists and technicians. VDAPs work directly saved tens of thousands of lives, notably during eruptions of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, in 1991, Nevado del Huila, Colombia, in 2007-2008, and Merapi Volcano, Indonesia, in 2010.

Following the 1985 tragedy, VDAP has worked with Colombia’s scientists on several volcano crisis responses and capacity building projects, including direct involvement in establishing three observatories, like the one at Manizales that is responsible for monitoring and issuing warnings of activity at Ruiz. The observatories are part of the Servicio Geologico Colombiano (Colombian Geological Service).

Two months ago in early March, Colombian scientists detected a significant increase in earthquake activity at shallow levels beneath Nevado del Ruiz and sulfur dioxide gas emissions. The seismic activity increased further in early April, and the volcano’s alert level was raised to the second highest level, signaling that an eruption was likely in days or weeks.

Local and national relief agencies activated contingency plans developed after the 1985 disaster, and people living in river valleys from the volcano were alerted to the potential threat of lahars.

Colombia also formally requested additional VDAP assistance through the U.S. State Department. For the past three weeks, a three-person VDAP team has worked with Colombia’s scientists to consult in the interpretation of the earthquake activity and upgrade components of the monitoring network, including a lahar-warning system developed at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Scientists interpret the recent activity at Ruiz to be caused by magma rising to a shallow level beneath the volcano. The magma, however, appears to have stalled, thereby preventing an eruption thus far, but allowing for the release of large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere. Time and continued vigilance by Colombia’s scientists will tell whether the intrusion will start anew, possibly leading to an eruption from the summit crater and lahars, or return to a period of quiet.

The Ruiz tragedy will always serve as strong reminder that scientists and emergency management officials must focus on the effective dissemination of volcano warnings and participate in the development of emergency response plans so that people know what to do when a volcano erupts and warnings are issued. VDAP’s monitoring and training strategy and its focus on communication between everyone involved in a volcano emergency in the past 25 years has proven itself over and over again.

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