02.25.09

Jindal's Eruption of Hot Gas

In a bizarre moment from Bobby Jindal's speech last night, the Louisiana governor dumped on President Obama for funding "something called 'volcanic monitoring.'" Top geologists tell the Daily Beast that the governor needs to do his homework.

The country is facing two wars, an unprecedented economic crisis, and global environmental hazards, but Bobby Jindal last night decided to call attention to one of the stranger problems one could think of: overprotecting Americans from volcanoes.

In his response to President Obama's address, Jindal said he opposed the stimulus package's inclusion of “$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.'”

“Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C,” Jindal said.

While the claim was factually inaccurate (the $140 million will go to the US Geological Survey, of which volcanic research is only a part), scientists are also decrying Jindal's comments as a blast of hot volcanic air.

“I would give the honorable governor poor marks for his education,” one geologist who has studied volcanoes said.

“Apparently the governor of Louisiana doesn't remember any of the major volcanic eruptions in recent history,” said Mark Brandon, a professor of geology at Yale University who has studied volcanoes around the world. “Volcanic monitoring right now is absolutely essential for protecting lives and property. The amount of money invested compared to the amount of money returned is trivial. It's not just some hobby—if the governor were in a volcanic eruption, he'd realize that the people who do that work are very useful in protecting you from direct hazards.”

Brandon was a student at University of Washington when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes. Many more would almost certainly have died without the volcanic monitoring that allowed authorities to evacuate the population ahead of time.

“I would give the honorable governor poor marks for his education,” Brandon said. “It's just naïve to live in a world where everything goes as you expect. The classic example of lack of awareness of this kind of hazard is the 2004 Sumatra earthquake, which led to that devastating tsunami. People had lost memory of what happened because the last one was several generations ago, and that's an example of how infrequent hazards can be particularly devastating, because we just don't have the generational experience.”

He said that increased monitoring was “our investment against these hazards,” and crucial to spotting signs of similar once-in-a-century or once-in-a-millennium events.

Several other scientists expressed similar disbelief at Jindal's attack on their work, which was especially surprising given Louisiana's experience fending off a rare natural disaster in Hurricane Katrina.

“I was kind of taken aback by the way volcanic monitoring was portrayed in the speech,” said Brad Singer, a professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin. “Every once in awhile there's some odd science research going on that sounds so out there that it's not useful and even I can laugh at some of those. But volcano monitoring is a serious business. I would say there are hundreds of thousands of people in the US who live in the sphere of hazard associated with many individual volcanoes.”

As Singer pointed out, there are volcanic tremors and other disturbances going on right now at Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, where a more severe incident could threaten the population of Anchorage. Thanks to monitoring, authorities might be able to order an evacuation should one be necessary, as was done with the area surrounding Mount St. Helens in 1980. Another hazard that volcano monitoring can mitigate is threats to aircrafts that pass through clouds of ash. There have been cases where 747s have had engines stall out at high altitudes while passing through unexpected patches of volcanic ash, causing them to drop thousands of feet before regaining control and sometimes obscuring visibility entirely. One such case in 1989 caused $80 million in damage to an Anchorage-bound flight that lost power for five minutes after running into ash from an erupting Mt. Redoubt. Another hazard: fast-moving mudflows caused by melting ice after an eruption, which can travel at 60 mph and devastate everything in their path. Seattle is partly built on one such mudflow, created only several thousand years ago.

“In my mind it's a field that’s been severely underfunded in the US and there are people with the expertise to do this immediately and do it effectively at fairly low cost,” Singer said. “I can guarantee you there's equipment and expertise and ways to deploy instrumentation right away. To me, it qualifies for all the things the president is saying about wanting projects to be ready tomorrow.”

William Scott, a USGS geologist who monitors volcanoes in the Cascade Mountains, which includes Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, said that his office hopes to use funding from the stimulus to improve their operations by significantly reducing the speed at which monitoring results reach scientists.

“These kinds of volcanoes in the Cascades remain quiet for decades and centuries and then quite suddenly over a period of weeks or months resume activity,” Scott said. “The only way we know we can detect that onset of unrest is if we have instruments around the volcano.”

Scott said he was surprised to suddenly have to defend his office's activities thanks to Governor Jindal's speech, but was grateful for the chance to focus attention on its importance.

“Generally we get in the news media when a volcano is threatening to erupt,” Scott said. “So this is a different kind of attention… It's an opportunity to get the correct message out.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.