The gas, rock and ash that spewed from the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia melted snow at the peak instantly, sending a flow of hot mud roaring down the mountain at nearly 30 miles an hour and burying thousands of villagers up to 45 miles away. More than 23,000 people died due to the country’s inability to communicate the danger in real time.
Created in response to that disastrous eruption in 1985, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program has been working with countries ever since to prevent such calamitous loss of life. Led by John Pallister for the past 10 years, the small but highly skilled and effective team has helped developing countries build their technical and intellectual capacity and set up volcano early warning systems.
When a country requests assistance, team scientists—who are funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Agency for International Development—help their foreign counterparts build networks and install instrumentation linked to local observatories.
That assistance contributed to Indonesia’s decisions in 2010 that saved more than 10,000 lives during the largest eruption of Merapi Volcano in 100 years. In 2008, another Colombian volcano erupted and sent a giant flow of mud into a downstream village, but this time, thanks to years of collaboration and a quick response by the volcano team, no one died.
“It’s a great example of how our government can make a difference,” said Walter North, U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money, but it’s really paid off.”
With the volcano team’s help, many countries have become equipped to recognize the warning signs of an eruption and have saved thousands of lives by alerting people to evacuate.
“They say a volcano wakes up,” said Gari Mayberry, a USGS geological hazard advisor. “You can actually predict a volcano eruption, more or less.”
Once equipment is in place and countries have improved their forecasting expertise, the team usually assists remotely, monitoring volcanic activity from its home base at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.
“Our mission is to prevent volcano crises from becoming disasters,” said Pallister.
Today, Colombia is far more prepared for volcanos, said Marta Calvache, technical director with the Colombian Geological Survey, crediting Pallister and his team.
“We may be good scientists and think we know a lot about volcanoes, but that doesn’t do anything for decision-making or for the people in the community” Calvache said. “John is very clear that it’s not only important to know about volcanoes, but how we approach and get to the people. The most important thing is how that knowledge is being used.”
Next door in Ecuador, Mayberry said the team has been consulting on Cotopaxi, “a very worrisome volcano” near the capital of Quito.
Good forecasting is critical. Too many false alarms and people will stop evacuating, said USGS Director Suzette Kimball. “If there’s an evacuation and nothing ever happens, it’s like the boy who cries wolf.”
The volcano team’s work also helps our country get a better handle on volcanoes. “It has mutual benefit,” North said. “We too are on the ring of fire” in the Pacific where many volcanoes erupt.
The U.S. and its territories have more active volcanoes than any country but Indonesia. “They don’t erupt frequently enough to get a full understanding of the threat of volcanic eruption,” Kimball said. “Having access to volcanoes worldwide improves our capabilities. It’s an important domestic return for us.”
The work also provides the opportunity to connect with countries that otherwise have lukewarm relationships with the U.S. government. Pallister and his team have built trust and strong relationships with scientists and governments in countries such as Ecuador, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Tanzania.
“In some countries, our diplomatic relations have not been necessarily the strongest, but the diplomatic way John comes in, in terms of scientific assistance, has overcome that,” Kimball said.
Helping countries predict volcanic eruptions also has protected U.S. assets overseas. In 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines started showing signs of activity, the volcano team shipped an entire volcano monitoring network that was installed prior to the eruption.
Estimates are that at least 5,000, and possibly as many as 20,000 local people heeded warnings to get out of harm’s way. More than 15,000 Americans living at Clark Air Force Base also were evacuated, and base personnel protected aircraft and equipment valued at more than $200 million by moving or covering it.
With the volcano work, the U.S. creates relationships in a “science-to-science manner that spins off into a broader relationship between countries,” said Pallister, who loves that his job enables him to “build friendships all over the world.”
His job satisfaction “really comes down to knowing that you have these international friendships and that you’ve helped save lives.”
The president of Chile and the vice president of Indonesia are just some of the world leaders who have thanked Pallister and the team personally and publicly.