Mount Hood in Oregon is one of 161 active volcanoes in the United States, many of them in the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Range.Credit...Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
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By Shannon Hall
Seth Moran is worried about Mount Hood.
In the 1780s, the volcano rumbled to life with such force that it sent high-speed avalanches of hot rock, gas and ash down its slopes. Those flows quickly melted the snow and ice and mixed with the meltwater to create violent slurries as thick as concrete that traveled huge distances. They destroyed everything in their path.
Today, the volcano, a prominent backdrop against Portland, Ore., is eerily silent. But it won’t stay that way.
Mount Hood remains an active volcano — meaning that it will erupt again. And when it does, it could unleash mudflows not unlike those from Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano in 1985. There, a mudflow entombed the town of Armero, killing roughly 21,000 people in the dead of night.
On Mount Hood, “any little thing that happens could have a big consequence,” said Dr. Moran, scientist-in-charge at the federal Cascades Volcano Observatory.
And yet the volcano is hardly monitored. If scientists miss early warning signs of an eruption, they might not know the volcano is about to blow until it’s too late.
Determined to avoid such a tragedy, Dr. Moran and his colleagues proposed installing new instruments on the flanks of Mount Hood in 2014. Those include three seismometers to measure earthquakes, three GPS instruments to chart ground deformation and one instrument to monitor gas emissions at four different locations on the mountain.
But they quickly hit a major hiccup: The monitoring sites are in wilderness areas, meaning that the use of the land is tightly restricted. It took five years before the Forest Service granted the team approval in August.
The approval is a promising step forward, but Dr. Moran and his colleagues still face limitations, including potential legal action that may block their work.
Such obstacles are a problem across the United States where most volcanoes lack adequate monitoring. Although federal legislation passed in March could help improve the monitoring of volcanoes like Mount Hood, scientists remain concerned that red tape could continue to leave them blind to future eruptions, with deadly consequences.
Mt. St. Helens
Listening for rumbles and belches
The United States is home to 161 active volcanoes, many of which form a line along the west coast through California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Seven of the 10 most dangerous American volcanoes are within the Cascade Range, and six of those are not adequately monitored.
In contrast, countries like Japan, Iceland and Chile smother their high-threat volcanoes in scientific instruments.
“The U.S. really doesn’t have anything to this level,” said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University in Ohio.
Yet there is no question that better monitoring could save lives. Volcanoes don’t typically erupt without warning. As Mount St. Helens awoke in May 1980, a series of small earthquakes could be felt on the surface nearby. Shortly thereafter, the volcano started to deform. Steam explosions sculpted a new crater, while a bulge emerged on the volcano’s north flank. Earthquakes continued, landslides rumbled and ash-rich plumes erupted — all before the main event.
Although not all volcanoes follow such a steady, pre-eruptive pattern, they typically either tremble, deform or belch volcanic gases — meaning that if scientists monitor these three signals, they will likely be able to forecast when a volcanic eruption will happen.
Take Hawaii as an example. Shortly after earthquakes picked up at the Kilauea volcano on April 30, 2018, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory could tell that they were not only increasing, but they were also propagating to the east.
“That was not only cool, it was vital for emergency management,” Dr. Moran said.
Scientists used those signals to project where magma might erupt, and planners evacuated residents in that area. The eruption destroyed more than 700 homes, but remarkably no one died.
And it was all thanks to 60 seismic stations located across the island.
“Without those instruments, we would have been blind,” said Tina Neal, the scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. “While we would have known something was happening, we would have been less able to give guidance about where and what was likely to happen.”
Nature’s Bill of Rights
Dr. Moran and his colleagues had that example in mind as they pressed their case for adding instruments to Mount Hood.
They submitted a proposal to the Forest Service in 2014. But the instruments — which will be housed in four-feet-tall boxes with radio antennas and solar panels on the outside — violate the Wilderness Act, which prohibits any new structures and even noise pollution within federal wilderness areas.
“I see the Wilderness Act as nature’s bill of rights,” said George Nickas, the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a conservation group that opposed volcano monitoring in federal wilderness. “I think it is so important to have places like that where we can just step back, out of respect and humility, and appreciate nature for what it is.”
In reviewing Dr. Moran’s proposal, the Forest Service provided the public with an opportunity to comment, during which they received more than 2,000 statements — most of which agreed that the wilderness needs safeguarding.
To Jonathan Fink, a geologist at Portland State University who also wrote a public comment in favor of volcano monitoring, this argument is misplaced.
“I’m all for protecting wilderness,” Dr. Fink said. “But this is just a question of public safety. And I think letting a helicopter in to put some instruments in that can then be monitored remotely seems like a pretty minor exception to the wilderness policies.”
Even so, many critics argue that we can’t make even a single exception — or there won’t be wilderness at all.
“It’s not wilderness if you have structures, if you have roads, if you have motorization,” said Gary Macfarlane, Wilderness Watch’s president. “In fact, it’s antithetical to the whole idea of wilderness.”
Lessons from Mount St. Helens
Other critics say the project is far from necessary. “If we can do something like land one of those landers on Mars, we can move a few miles back from a volcanic feature and monitor it from a little further away,” said Bernie Smith, a retired employee of the Forest Service who wrote a public comment against the project.
But Dr. Moran and others argue that the work is not possible unless they get up close, and before the volcano begins to rock.
“The name of the game is to be able to detect and correctly interpret these warning signs as soon as possible — to give society as much time as possible to get ready,” Dr. Moran said.
When Mount St. Helens first began to rumble, scientists couldn’t tell if the quakes originated under the volcano itself or five miles away at a nearby fault. They only had one seismometer two miles to the west of the volcano. So they rushed to place more instruments on its slopes (a risk that would not be allowed today) and within days they knew the volcano itself was shaking.
“Looking back on it, it’s really miraculous that they were able to do what they did,” Dr. Moran said.
Scientists have since learned that we don’t always get as much time as Mount St. Helens allowed. At Calbuco, a volcano in southern Chile that’s similar to the volcanoes in the Cascades, all was quiet during the early afternoon of April 22, 2015. But tremors began in the late afternoon, and by 6:04 p.m. local time, the mountain was sending a plume of gas 10 miles into the sky.
With such a narrow window, the first line of defense is to have a solid monitoring network in place whenever a volcano awakens.
“You’re going to either get in there ahead of time and put in the instrumentation you need, or you’re just going to accept that you’re going to go blind into the entire eruptive period and whatever happens, happens,” said Jacob Lowenstern, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey.
Not if, but when
Although none of these volcanoes appear to be building toward an eruption today, there is no question that they pose a serious hazard.
“The U.S.G.S. has a deep understanding that these volcanoes are going to erupt again — within our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes,” said Carolyn Driedger, a hydrologist at the Cascades observatory. “The evidence is all there.”
Beyond Mount Hood, Mount Rainier near Seattle could also unleash viscous volcanic mudflows. There, 80,000 people live in the path of disaster and yet the mountain only has 19 instruments, which scientists say is not enough given its vast size.
And even volcanoes that don’t loom so close to populated areas could have far-reaching effects.
Glacier Peak in northern Washington has produced some of the most explosive eruptions in the contiguous United States, meaning the ability to throw enough ash into the air to halt air traffic for days or even weeks and cost billions of dollars. It has only one seismometer.
Without equipment to detect the eruption, airplane passengers just might find themselves living a high-altitude nightmare. In 1989, a Boeing 747 flew through an undetected ash cloud in Alaska. All four engines shut down and the airplane went into a nose-dive. It descended 13,000 feet before the pilots were able to restart the engines. Hundreds of thousands of people fly across the West Coast and above active volcanoes every day.
Eruptions in Alaska and California would also be felt across the nation. Anchorage is a major cargo hub, meaning that many FedEx or U.P.S. packages travel through Alaska. But an eruption might bring that to an alarming halt. And because California produces a large portion of the nation’s food, an eruption might limit the fruits and vegetables found at supermarkets as far as the East Coast.
“We’re not just doing this for academic purposes. This is so we can give good information to emergency managers,” Dr. Driedger said. “That’s the end in all of this.”
Hoping for slumber
Despite the permit’s recent approval, Dr. Driedger notes that there are still a number of steps before any instruments can be placed on Mount Hood. They will now have to choreograph the assembly of instruments, hire personnel and schedule helicopter trips around weather and other potential obstacles.
Moreover, the Forest Service and the observatory could still face a legal challenge from Wilderness Watch or other groups that adds years to the installation, if not blocking it altogether.
“This is more proof that the Forest Service has abandoned any pretense of administering wilderness as per the letter or spirit of the Wilderness Act,” said Mr. Macfarlane, whose group is discussing litigation with an attorney but has not yet decided whether to file suit.
And then there is more work to be done monitoring other hazardous volcanoes beyond Mount Hood.
Volcanologists across the nation were pleased this March when Congress passed the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act, which seeks to ensure that volcanoes nationwide are adequately monitored.
But the bill is only an authorization — meaning that Congress has not actually invested the $55 million over five years required to apply for new permits, install more equipment and pay to monitor 34 of the nation’s most dangerous volcanoes. Nor will it change the fact that scientists like Dr. Moran must still grapple with regulations protecting federal wilderness.
So Dr. Moran, aware that litigation is a possibility, is moving forward with caution. This month, his team will begin to install monitoring stations at Mount Hood. He then hopes the Forest Service will issue a permit to install equipment at Glacier Peak, then turn back to Washington’s Mount Baker. Eventually he would like to install more instruments on Mount Hood, but first he needs to create sufficient networks elsewhere.
While they wait, Dr. Moran and his colleagues will hold their breath, hopeful that these volcanoes stay in a deep slumber, but aware that one just might rouse at any moment.
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There were 75 confirmed eruptions at some point during 2019 from 73 different volcanoes; 27 of those were new eruptions that started during the year. A stop date with "(continuing)" indicates that the eruption was considered to be ongoing as of the date indicated.Does the U.S. have any dangerous volcanoes? ›
The United States is home to 161 active volcanoes, many of which form a line along the west coast through California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Seven of the 10 most dangerous American volcanoes are within the Cascade Range, and six of those are not adequately monitored.Is considered to be America's most dangerous volcano? ›
The most dangerous volcano in America is Kīlauea in Hawaii. It has an overall threat score of 263. Eruptive episodes as recently as 2018 caused evacuations and at least 87 houses were destroyed by lava. The 2021 summit eruption is ongoing.Which volcano in the US is most likely to erupt? ›
Crater Lake (Oregon)
The most recent eruption here was about 6,600 years ago. The USGS anticipates a "very high" threat potential from a future eruption at Crater Lake.
|Mount St. Helens, Washington||1980||573|
|Lassen Peak, California||1915||04|
|Mount Vesuvius, Italy||79 A.D.||3,3602|
It last erupted in 1984, making this prolonged quiet period the volcano's longest in recorded history. Mauna Loa's summit crater sits about 21 miles west of Kilauea, a smaller volcano that has been erupting since 2021.Which volcano will erupt again? ›
Mauna Loa erupted most recently in 1984, and will erupt again in the future, posing significant risks to people living on the flanks of the volcano.When was the last eruption on Earth? ›
An eruption on May 28, 2022, sent ash to an altitude of 15 km, causing some disruptions to flights in the North Pacific, including an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Tokyo that diverted back to Los Angeles midway across the Pacific, landing after approximately 12 hours in the air.Is Yellowstone volcano overdue? ›
Yellowstone is not overdue for an eruption. Volcanoes do not work in predictable ways and their eruptions do not follow predictable schedules. Even so, the math doesn't work out for the volcano to be “overdue” for an eruption.Is Yellowstone volcano waking up? ›
The Yellowstone supervolcano last erupted about 640,000 years ago. A sleeping giant is nestled in the western part of the United States. Though it stirs occasionally, it has not risen from slumber in nearly 70,000 years.
No, Mount Everest is not a volcano. It was produced from a tectonic collision between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates tens of millions of years ago.Is there a volcano worse than Yellowstone? ›
It's called the La Garita Caldera, and it rivals the Toba eruption in Indonesia and all Yellowstone eruptions. These are “supervolcanoes,” so comparing them to Italy's Vesuvius or Washington's Mount St. Helens is like comparing blowing out birthday candles to a hurricane.What if Yellowstone erupted? ›
If the Yellowstone supervolcano ever erupted, it would bring about a calamity for most of the United States. The supervolcano would spew deadly ash for thousands of miles across the entire country.What is America's biggest volcano? ›
Rising gradually to more than 4 km (2.5 mi) above sea level, Hawaii's Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano on our planet.What state in the U.S. has the most active volcanoes? ›
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|Topo map||USGS Yellowstone National Park|
|Age of rock||2,100,000–70,000 years|
|Mountain type||Caldera and supervolcano|
Kilauea has several craters and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but has not caused any catastrophic damage since 1790. The majority of the volcanoes are located in the state of Alaska.What volcano could destroy the world? ›
Yellowstone National Park
In the previous 2.1 million years, the Yellowstone supervolcano, which scored an 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, has erupted three times, most recently 640,000 years ago. An eruption at Yellowstone would be beyond anything the human race has ever known.
Mauna Loa erupts in Hawaii: World's biggest active volcano was dormant 38 years The mountain, which is taller than Mount Everest measured from seafloor to summit, erupted Sunday. Its lava appears to be contained, but scientists say the volcano has a history of rapidly changing.When did the volcano erupt in USA? ›
Which volcanoes in the conterminous United States have erupted since the Nation was founded? Excluding steam eruptions, these volcanoes have shown activity: Mount St. Helens, Washington - Eruptions and/or lava dome growth occurred in the late 1700s, 1800-1857, 1980-1986, and 2004-2008.
The most recent volcanic activity at Yellowstone consisted of rhyolitic lava flows that erupted approximately 70,000 years ago. The largest of these flows formed the Pitchstone Plateau in southwestern Yellowstone National Park.Where did Yellowstone last erupt? ›
The most recent volcanic eruption at Yellowstone, a lava flow on the Pitchstone Plateau, occurred 70,000 years ago.What is the next volcano to erupt in 2022? ›
Tonga: Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami - Jan 2022.What happens if Old Faithful erupts? ›
If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It'd be a huge disaster.Can an extinct volcano come back? ›
Volcanoes typically are categorized thusly: active (a volcano that has erupted in the past 10,000 years), erupting (an active volcano that is experiencing an eruption), dormant (an active volcano that has the potential to erupt again), and extinct (a volcano that has not erupted in over 10,000 years and is unlikely to ...Is Yellowstone supervolcano active? ›
Is Yellowstone's volcano still active? Yes. The park's many hydrothermal features attest to the heat still beneath this area. Earthquakes—700 to 3,000 per year— also reveal activity below ground.Is the oldest volcano still active? ›
Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy is thought to be the oldest active volcano. It first erupted in the year 1500 BC and since then, it has erupted close to 200 times. It is also one of the largest known volcanos in the world.How hot is lava? ›
Here are some temperatures recorded at different times and locations: The eruption temperature of Kīlauea lava is about 1,170 degrees Celsius (2,140 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature of the lava in the tubes is about 1,250 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit).Where are the 3 super volcanoes in North America? ›
(As you can see in a graphic in the gallery above.) The United States is home to three active supervolcanoes, the USGS has determined: The famous Yellowstone, Long Valley and the Valles Caldera in New Mexico.Will Yellowstone erupt in 2030? ›
However, recent studies find that the speed at which the volcano can fill its magma chamber and erupt is on the order of a few decades. That means Yellowstone supervolcano could go from its usual activity like today to erupting in 2030's.
There are about 12 supervolcanoes on Earth — each one at least seven times larger than Mount Tambora, which had the biggest eruption in recorded history. If all of these supervolcanoes erupted at once, they'd likely pour thousands of tons of volcanic ash and toxic gases into the atmosphere.Is there lava under Yellowstone? ›
Since Yellowstone's last caldera-forming eruption 640,000 years ago, about 30 eruptions of rhyolitic lava flows have nearly filled the Yellowstone Caldera. Other flows of rhyolite and basalt (a more fluid variety of lava) also have been extruded outside the caldera.Can volcano sleep? ›
Volcanoes that are no longer active are known as dormant or sleeping volcanoes. Despite lying inactive for thousands of years, these volcanoes are anticipated to erupt again at some point. Mount Fuji and Mount Rainier are two examples of dormant volcanoes.How cold would the Earth be if Yellowstone erupted? ›
Geologists believe the ash from the eruption would encircle the globe in as little as 48 hours, and make temperatures drop by a minimum of two degrees celsius for as long as 20 years. The cooling of the Earth could be catastrophic for the planet's fragile ecosystem, kicking off a chain reaction of extinctions.Does anything live on Everest? ›
But despite its inhospitable nature, the world's tallest peak is teeming with life. Seimon and her team found 16 percent of Earth's taxonomic orders—a classification including families, genera, and species—on just Mount Everest's southern flank. They recently published their findings in the journal iScience.How cold is it at the top of Everest? ›
The weather and climate of Mount Everest is one of extremes. Temperatures at the summit are never above freezing and during January temperatures can drop as low as -60° C (-76° F). Despite the low temperatures the biggest issue faced by climbers are hurricane force winds and wind chill.Who owns Mt. Everest? ›
Mount Everest is located at the border between China and Nepal, in political and geographical aspects, Everest is jointly owned by the two countries. Mount Everest was divided into two parts, starting from the highest point of the mountain, southern slope lies in Nepal and north in China.Could the US survive a Yellowstone eruption? ›
YVO gets a lot of questions about whether Yellowstone, or another caldera system, will end all life on Earth. The answer is—NO, a large explosive eruption at Yellowstone will not lead to the end of the human race. The aftermath of such an explosion certainly wouldn't be pleasant, but we won't go extinct.What states would get hit if Yellowstone erupted? ›
Those parts of the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that are closest to Yellowstone would be affected by pyroclastic flows, while other places in the United States would be impacted by falling ash (the amount of ash would decrease with distance from the eruption site).How much of America would be destroyed if Yellowstone erupted? ›
This is a modal window. No compatible source was found for this media. RealLifeLore goes on to say that lava from the volcano would destroy just about everything within a 40-mile radius of the blast. Major US cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boise would also possibly destroyed upon eruption.
The two intervals are thus 0.8 and 0.66 million years, averaging to a 0.73 million-year interval. Again, the last eruption was 0.64 million years ago, implying that we are still about 90,000 years away from the time when we might consider calling Yellowstone overdue for another caldera-forming eruption.Would Yellowstone cause an ice age? ›
One of the most concerning effects of the amount of ash particles in the air would be on the climate. The ash would block out the sun causing the whole world to experience a sudden temperature drop of up to ten degrees. It would even spark a mini ice age.How far would Yellowstone volcano reach if it erupted? ›
The devastation would not be restricted to the local environment. Yellowstone's plume of ash, lava, and volcanic gases would reach a height of fifteen miles or more, and from this lofty position, be blown across North America.What is a super volcano in America? ›
By Yellowstone. The term "supervolcano" implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning the measured deposits for that eruption is greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles).Who owns Yellowstone National Park? ›
|Yellowstone National Park|
|Elevation||8,104 ft (2,470 m)|
|Established||March 1, 1872|
|Visitors||3,806,306 (in 2020)|
|Governing body||U.S. National Park Service|
Yellowstone's famous caldera, which last went off more than 640,000 years ago, can lay claim as North America's most well-known supervolcano.What is the most dangerous volcano in the world 2022? ›
The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano on 15 January 2022 was the largest recorded since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The eruption triggered tsunami waves of up to 15m which struck the west coast of Tongatapu, 'Eua and Ha'apai. Ashfall covered an area of at least five square kilometres.What is the most powerful volcano? ›
The biggest supervolcano on Earth was discovered in 2013: the Tamu Massif, with a 4 km height and a 640 km width, a submarine shield volcano located in the Pacific Ocean, east of Japan.What volcano caused the most deaths? ›
In 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on Sumbawa, an island of modern-day Indonesia. Historians regard it as the volcano eruption with the deadliest known direct impact: roughly 100,000 people died in the immediate aftermath.What is the loudest volcano on Earth? ›
The loudest sound in recorded history came from the volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island Krakatoa at 10.02 a.m. on August 27, 1883.
Since the late 1700s, volcanoes have caused more than 250,000 deaths. Most of these occurred during four disastrous eruptions. The largest of the four occurred on April 10–11, 1815, at Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island, now a part of Indonesia.Which country has no volcano? ›
Venezuela has no recognized volcanoes.What are the top 5 worst volcanic eruptions? ›
Eruption Year Casualties Major Cause Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia 1985 25,0001,3 Mudflows3 Mont Pelée, Martinique 1902 30,0001 (29,025)2 Pyroclastic flows2 Krakatau, Indonesia 1883 36,0001 (36,417)2 Tsunami2 Tambora, Indonesia 1815 92,0001,2 Starvation2 Unzendake, Japan 1792 15,0001 (14,030)2 Volcano collapse, Tsunami2 ...Which volcano poses the greatest threat to mankind? ›
Kīlauea is ranked as the U.S. volcano with the highest threat score in the very high threat category. In 1980, a powerful explosion at Mount St.