Modest volcano-monitoring ‘can still save lives’

Early warning saved many lives during Mount Merapi's eruption in Indonesia in 2010 Copyright: Flickrcoolinsights

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[LIMA] A few, well-placed monitoring stations can make a huge difference to a developing country’s ability to alert its people to an imminent volcanic eruption, an international meeting of seismologists heard this month.

Poor countries sometimes install over-ambitious monitoring networks which then suffer because of unstable power sources or lack of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, according to Andrew Lockhart, a geophysicist with the US Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), which has installed networks on more than 40 volcanoes in 13 developing countries.

Yet, just a small amount of investment in tried and tested technologies for monitoring volcanoes can help reduce the fatalities and economic losses resulting from volcanic emergencies, he said.

Volcano monitoring can also help anticipate and reduce risks, and improve understanding of volcanic hazards, which can sometimes cause other disasters such as earthquakes, he told the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America (13–15 April).

For example, advance warning of the October 2010 eruption at Merapi, Indonesia, helped 10,000 people escape danger.

"It is important for policymakers to note that, although monitoring ability and hazard mitigation increase with the number and variety of monitoring sites, it is also true that a very limited network of well-placed telemetred seismic stations [to remotely measure and transmit information] provide a great deal of value in hazard mitigation," Lockhart told the meeting.

"A relatively small investment in digital seismic equipment buys a lot of monitoring capability if done correctly," he added. "Sustainability is difficult if a government chooses to make a large investment in the purchase and installation of many volcano monitoring stations but fails adequately to fund the costs of upkeep."

Developing countries’ monitoring systems can suffer from a variety of problems, including demoralisation in the institutions that oversee them because of low pay, high stress and lack of resources. Animosity between rival national institutions with overlapping responsibilities for monitoring volcanic hazards — and with differing levels of international support — can also be damaging, he said.

Systems may lack power and ICT infrastructure, or find it difficult to replace key equipment, he said, adding that sustainability is challenging because monitoring sites are usually exposed to extreme conditions.

Another problem is that the benefits of training are rarely propagated or do not survive staffing changes, and poor government salaries drive well-trained engineers into the private sector.

Marta Lucía Calvache Velasco, deputy director of geological hazards at the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, told SciDev.Net that her country’s partnership with VDAP has given it access to new equipment, advisors and training to develop early warning systems.

Patricia Mothes, a volcanologist at Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, another partner of VDAP, said that one of the biggest constraints is the lack of an adequate and flexible budget, which limits the adoption and application of available technology.

"We have to monitor 11 volcanoes without a proper budget for training. We work 24-hour days because we don’t have enough staff," she told SciDev.Net.