Dangerous Volcanoes

By Larry Kummer – From the Fabius Maximus website

Summary: While we obsess about climate change and debate if we live in the Anthropocene, we prepare poorly or not at all for natural forces like volcanoes that can level cities. This is folly we can no longer afford. Experts recommend a simple first step to better protect ourselves. Let’s start listening, or nature will teach us an expensive lesson.

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
Steven Mosher (of Berkeley Earth), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

America has some of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, including two active “supervolcanoes” — Yellowstone (WY) and Long Lake (CA). The odds are low of an eruption soon at Yellowstone. But the USGS paints a worrisome picture of Long Lake.

“Based on the frequency of eruptions along the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain in the past 5,000 years, the probability of an eruption {at Long Lake} occurring in any given year is somewhat less than 1% per year or roughly one chance in a few hundred in any given year.

“This is comparable to the annual chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake (like the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) along the San Andreas Fault in coastal California or of an eruption from one of the more active Cascade Range volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, such as Mount Rainier in Washington or Mount Shasta in California.”

But those are just a few of the dangerous volcanoes in America. Some might destroy cities. Some might destroy a state. Although improbable, a supervolcanic eruption at Yellowstone might blanket everything for 500 miles around with 4 inches of ash.

In 2005 the US Geological Survey made a comprehensive study of the threat of volcanoes in the US. They found 57 are of high risk but with inadequate monitoring (systems at some of these might have been upgraded since the study).


California is the State most at risk due to its volcanoes near major cities, as shown in this map from the website of the California Volcano Observatory.

The USGS described the risk to America posed by these volcanoes and has a recommendation. We should listen.

“Roughly half of the Nation’s 169 young volcanoes are dangerous because of the manner in which they erupt and the communities within their reach. Currently, many of these volcanoes have insufficient monitoring systems, and others have obsolete equipment.

“The National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure that volcanoes are monitored at levels commensurate to their threats. The goal of the NVEWS is to ensure that the most hazardous volcanoes will be properly monitored well in advance of the onset of activity, making it possible for scientists to improve the timeliness and accuracy of hazard forecasts and for citizens to take proper and timely action to reduce risk.”

In 2006 the USGS proposed this sensible measure to watch some of the most serious threats to America. See the NVEWS Fact Sheet for details. It could provide additional warning allowing preservation of property and life from an eruption. Of course, both Left and Right ignored it. Congress did nothing. Using Obama’s post-crash stimulus funding (ARRA) stimulus of 2009-2011 and other funds, the USGS has upgraded 30% of monitoring networks to NVEWS standards.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has introduced bill S.346 to establish the NVEWS. As she did in 2011 and 2014. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the NVEWS would cost $55 million over the five years 2018-2022. Pocket change in terms of US defense spending.

It is a sign of our government’s dysfunctionality that after ten years Congress still has not funded NVEWS. Let’s hope that third time is a charm for Senator Murkowski’s bill.

So many dangers to America! How can we prepare?

Today we allocate funds to risk management by a carnival-like process. Which measures produce the most benefit to power special interests? Which advance the interest of power ideological groups? Which has the advocates screaming the loudest and least-scientific warnings.

We have limited funds to meet the hundreds of threats, most of which are shockwaves: low probability (in any years) but high impact. The first step is straight from the risk management textbooks (probably too sensible for emotional modern Americans): List and assess the various risks on a common scale of likelihood and impact. For details see The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers.

Second, we need an overall framework to decide how much to spend preventing and preparing for shockwave events. Wild irrational voices tell us to spend whatever it takes (e.g., Nassim Nicholas Taleb)! without first calculating how much that is, an obvious sign of unserious thinking. There are important questions of strategy. Getting these right can mean the difference between effective spending and burning scarce dollars. For example, when should we be precautionary or proactionary when preparing for the future?

Let’s be smart and so deserve world leadership by something other than the number of guns we have.

“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
— Private Detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in the movie The Big Sleep (1946).

If we see the world more clearly, we can act more effectively.


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