Monday, March 23, 2009

Mt. Redoubt Blows

And offers another opportunity to criticize Bobby Jindal:
As a slew of observers -- from local officials to geologists to bloggers to Paul Krugman ("the intellectual incohernence is stunning") -- pointed out at the time, volcano monitoring is crucial work. At the risk of stating the obvious, using advanced technology to predict when a volcano might erupt, at the most basic level, allows local officials to, um, save people's lives by evacuating them. It's hard to think of a better use of government money.

Why is Jindal's line looking even worse now? Because, as you've likely heard, Alaska's Mount Redoubt, 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted last night. And a USGS geologist confirmed to TPMmuckraker that a portion of the stimulus spending for volcano monitoring that Jindal lampooned has been slated to go to USGS monitoring Redoubt.

Chris Waythomas, a geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a branch of the USGS, said that part of the money from the stimulus that Jindal was referring to would have been used to "shore up" monitoring of Redoubt, by adding new monitoring technology like real-time GPS. Redoubt, he said, was "very high on our list" of volcanoes that needed increased scrutiny.

In fact, thanks to its close monitoring of Redoubt, the USGS has known for months that it was on the point of blowing. The volcano had emitted ash and steam last week, alerting scientists to the likely imminence of a full eruption. Their efforts also meant they knew enough to raise the alert level to orange, or "watch" on Saturday, a day before Redoubt erupted. That, for instance, meant that the FAA received advanced warning that flight disruptions could occur, and it gave local officials time to draw up precautionary plans to evacuate people if needed.

So in this case, government scientists appear to have had access to enough information to anticipate the eruption, but there's no guarantee that that'll always be the case. Waythomas said that, because of funding shortfalls, monitoring efforts for several other volcanoes lacked some of the technologies that could be of crucial help to geologists.

"More [monitoring] instruments are always better," said Waythomas. "The more advanced warning really reduces the stress on everybody. After the fact is really too late."

Here's the key point: this weekend's eruption could hardly have offered a better example of the enormous value of the very activity that Jindal breezily disparaged in his speech.

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