This story originally aired on March 18, 2017.
More than 23,000 people lost their lives following the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia. In response, the United States Geological Survey and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance created the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, to help prevent other volcanic eruptions from becoming disasters.
At the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., the the chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program is John Pallister. He spoke with 88.5’s Bellamy Pailthorp about how the program works, and how it saves lives.
John Pallister: It started after a real tragedy in Colombia where 23,000 people died when a lahar — that’s a volcanic mudflow of the type that might come off Mt. Rainier, for example — came down and basically wiped out a city. It was real tragic event and it inspired people in USAID, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and USGS to get together with the commitment that we try to make sure that this never happens again. And so that's the underlying premise of our work. We try to get to a volcano when it's acting up but before it erupts to notify people. We provide the monitoring equipment we provide training and expertise. Having done this in a lot of different countries around the world and then our partners are ones who effect an evacuation to save lives and property. So over the years, I guess we estimate we've helped our partners save tens of thousands of lives.
Bellamy Pailthorp: Merapi. Tell me the story of Merapi.
JP: Merapi is one of the world's most hazardous volcanoes, not particularly because it has very large eruptions, but because it has a huge population living on its flanks. It's in Central Java, Jogjakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia. And it has more than a million people living right down slope on the south side of that volcano. It erupts on average, oh, every four years. In 2010, though it had what we call a 100-year eruption much, much larger than its normal eruptions and the onset and the precursors were very short lived. And so within about a week, it went from looking like a normal smaller eruption to a much, much larger eruption. Fortunately our partners had really worked closely with the communities much like we do here with the communities around Tacoma and or here in Mt. Hood for Portland. They'd worked very closely with those communities so they had evacuation plans they had the whole system set up. And again the night of the eruption, they went from 15 to 20 kilometers for the evacuation radius from the volcano. And in that 15 to 20 kilometers that meant effectively about 80,000 people had to run for their lives down the hill. They succeeded and they saved about 20,000 lives I calculate.
BP: So we were talking earlier about how this is not just about saving lives though. In some cases it's helping with international relations. And it's also helping your team 'stay in shape' as they work internationally. They stay in practice.
JP: And this is an important point. You might ask, 'Why does the USGS have an international program?' Well, partly it is international diplomacy. It's helping the State Department. But the other part of it is we get experience that we use domestically by doing these responses and by assisting our partners and by having workshops to develop this. Those people who responded to Pinatubo in 1991 are the same people that responded to Mount St. Helens when it woke up in 2004.
BP: Pinatubo. That was the big one in 1991 in the Philippines -- the largest eruption on earth in the last hundred years?
BP: I read that was in a densely populated area and many people were killed, but also tens of thousands of lives saved.
JP: That international experience pays off big time when you get back to this country and we deal with Alaskan eruptions or Hawaiian eruptions and eruptions here in the Cascades. One of our biggest challenges here in the Cascades is because the eruptions are infrequent. They're about ten times more active internationally than they are in the U.S. And so by this international experience, we get people experience, we test equipment. The lahar system at Mt. Rainier that we use for monitoring the potential future lahars has been tested internationally at other volcanoes that are actively having lahars. So it's a proving ground for instrumentation. It's a proving ground for people. I like to say that you wouldn't want a medical student to perform open heart surgery; you would want that student to have some experience first. By doing this international work, our people, our scientists, our technicians, our engineers get the international experience that we bring home.
BP: How does the communication work?
JP: Well, the volcanology and volcano hazards community in the world is small. Most of us know each other and in going through crises you become fast friends. So, you know, when a friend asks for help, you help the best you can. So that's really how it works. It's based on friendships.
BP: It's a form of diplomacy: through your work together, you learn other things about each other and - with the goal of saving lives - you're really rising above day-to-day politics.
JP: We do something we call science diplomacy because, you know, when you have friends in different countries you begin to understand their cultures, their differences, their political differences. The science diplomacy the humanitarian response cuts through all of that. And so we have been called on in the past to come in to assist partners that also helps our embassies and helps our Foreign Service staff to build relationships that are non-confrontational and that begin to, in some cases, reestablish relationships between our country and other countries that have been strained.
BP: What would be examples of that?
JP: We were asked to respond to Ecuador, to the crisis at Cotopaxi. That's a volcano much like Mt. Rainier: an ice clad volcano that subject to producing very, very large lahars, mudflows. And we were asked to come in at a time where the relations were not that great between our two countries and yet we were welcomed because of the humanitarian aspects of our work. Same thing in Nicaragua. We've responded in the last two years to a crisis at Momotombo volcano in Nicaragua and that was a case where, again, there were somewhat strained relationships between our countries. But the humanitarian effort cuts through.
BP: How often do you get the email asking for help?
JP: We get requests for crisis assistance for sending deploying a team of specialists, I'd say on average recently, it's been three or four times a year.
BP: Is there a moment over the course of your career, particularly in your years with this international program, the DAPs, that you are most proud of?
JP: Probably the science response to Pinatubo where I discovered with partners the trigger for the eruption. And what caused that eruption was mixing of two very different magma. That mixing is what allowed the gas to drive the powerful explosion. That was kind of a breakthrough in our understanding of what triggers big explosive eruptions. So it is a dichotomy. It's a dichotomy of, on one side, the scientific, the understanding, the process, the hard science, if you will, the physics, the math, the chemistry, that all goes into that, and then on the other side it's using that science to then, you know, for this humanitarian effort. It's one of the fields where the rewards from that long term scientific investment come very fast and you can actually see them being applied to save lives. That's not that common. We see it in medicine of course when, you know, a new drug has developed, a new technique is developed. I think this is unusual in geology to be able to see the results of your investigations and your science be applied in real time.