Last night, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized government spending authorized by the stimulus bill, calling particular attention to "something called volcano monitoring." Hey, $140 million is a lot of money, and what does it get us? Turns out volcano monitoring is actually kind of a big deal.

Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.
Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.Courtesy Phil Walgren, Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS) and Alaska Airlines

It teaches us a lot about earth processes, of course, but some folks aren't swayed by talk of scientific advancement.

An argument for everyone is that monitoring enables authorities to plan and implement evacuations when necessary.

"The USGS has issued several warnings over the past 10 years, though predicting the timing and size of eruptions remains a difficult task.

Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives — and significant money — in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States had military bases at the time), according to the USGS.

The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across.

The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there.

The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."

Still not convinced? Here's another benefit: volcano monitoring keeps our air routes safer, too. See, a pilot can't easily tell the difference between an ash cloud and a regular cloud. But ash clouds can damage flight control systems and kill jet engines. Don't think that's really a big problem? Some 10,000 passengers and millions of dollars' worth of cargo are ferried by US aircraft over the North Pacific every day, and there are 100 potentially dangerous volcanoes under those air routes.

Suddenly "volcano monitoring" doesn't seem like a goofy piece of esoteric research...

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

mdr's picture
mdr says:

Steven Colbert said the Republican party knows the only sensible way to deal with a volcano is to sacrifice a virgin to it.

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 8:04am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

While the Democrats just throw my money into it. It's how they handle all of life's little problems. ;-)

posted on Fri, 02/27/2009 - 3:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

democrats don't just "throw" money into environmental issues. they research and decide what plan of action will be best, unlike some political groups who denied even the existence of global warming until just recently.

posted on Fri, 02/27/2009 - 3:47pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Given that global warming was not conclusively demonstrated until fairly recently, that seems like the more prudent course of action, does it not?

And isn't it interesting how all that Democrat-funded research just happens to support the Democrats' policy positions?

Of course, the work of Bjorn Lomborg has shown that those policies are pretty wrong-headed. But of course we must ignore that research.

Just as we must ignore the fact that much climate "research" isn't research at all, but fancy computer models based on scant observational evidence, and which have yet to prove their mettle as predictive tools for, um, setting policy. Maybe if we throw some more money at it...

Oh well. At the end of the day, only one thing can be said for sure:

Volcano monitoring is more geo-science than environmental science.

posted on Sat, 02/28/2009 - 7:18pm
bryan kennedy's picture

It seems like science is always a target for criticism when you need an "esoteric" whipping boy. Science research often sounds foreign and totally removed from everyday people's lives. This is one of the main reasons I love working at a science museum. We get paid to help you understand why something as odd sounding as volcano research might actually affect you someday.

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:32am
Thor's picture
Thor says:

Just ask the thousands of people in Washington state who had volcanic ash and debris from the Mount St. Helen's blast damage the finish of their cars if they'd like the government to continue monitoring volcano activity.

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:41am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Yeah. John McCain is Tweeting today about the projects included in the stimulus bill that he thinks are frivolous earmarks. Lots of them probably are. But lots of them seem like reasonable science investigations directly linked to agricultural or animal husbandry practices which could, conceivably, increase efficiency and potentially create jobs. I'm sure other senators are Tweeting the same sorts of lists. (My next step here is to look for some Democratic senators to compare/contrast with.) I'm OK with a difference of opinion. I'm even OK saying, "You know what? I don't think these things are important right now, so I'm going to block their funding if I can." I'm not thrilled, however, about the dismissive tone ("...how does one manage a fish?") It betrays an ignorance and lack of curiosity that I'd rather not see in our highest branches of government.

posted on Wed, 03/04/2009 - 12:48pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

I found a list on SourceWatch of Members of Congress who use Twitter.

And then I looked at the recent feeds from all of them. Most of them weren't tweeting about particular projects funded by the bill. (Chris Dodd (D) and Claire McCaskill (D) were, but they made no mention of any specific science projects.)

Still, I'd be willing to bet that a dismissive attitude toward basic research isn't the exclusive domain of one party or another. What gives? What do YOU think about government funding for basic science?

posted on Wed, 03/04/2009 - 1:21pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

To be fair, I think it's reasonable to ask ourselves how volcano monitoring might create jobs, since that is, in theory, the point of the stimulus bill. And I don't know the answer. But acting like volcano monitoring itself is of no value seems odd.

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:54am
shanai's picture
shanai says:

When we have scientists talk at Cafe Scientifique, the question of the "value" of their research almost always comes up - especially with research that doesn't seem to directly benefit society, or that treads on those fault lines (forgive the pun) around things like sex and reproduction (just one example).

It surprises me that this particular project would be viewed that way, since our culture is so obsessed with natural disasters.

I agree, it makes sense that people would want to know why and how government money is spent. The effort to inform and engage the public with scientific research has not always been very effective at making a case for funding science as opposed to other things that seem more immediate and easier to understand.

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 3:42pm
DO's picture
DO says:

Thor: The ash from Mt St Helena was mostly silicon and ruined many car engines when it was sucked into them. (Nice pic!)

posted on Fri, 02/27/2009 - 2:24pm
Holden's picture
Holden says:

Nice pic, what does that mean DO.

posted on Sat, 02/28/2009 - 10:56am
allie's picture
allie says:

The whole volcano thing is pretty cool i fly a lot so i agree it is a good thing to have it. Keep up the good work : )

posted on Sat, 02/28/2009 - 12:52pm
Karen O.'s picture
Karen O. says:

It's particularly bizarre that someone from a state that suffered so terribly from a natural disaster -- a disaster he spent half of the speech talking about -- would mock monitoring for disasters. I can see a 2004-version of Jindal saying the government's wasting money on "something called hurricane monitoring." Who knows how many more would have died if there hadn't been forewarning.

And he's too dumb to understand what "volcano monitoring" might be? ("Something called.")

posted on Sat, 02/28/2009 - 3:57pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

They've got plenty to monitor up in Alaska today. Mt. Redoubt has had four massive eruptions in the last 24 hours. You can read more about it here.

posted on Mon, 03/23/2009 - 8:48am

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