Smithsonian Vulcanologist Makes the Case for Volcano Monitoring


Kriston Capps speaks with Richard Wundermanm, volcanologist and museum specialist for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, about a variety of topics. They touch on Bobby Jindal’s attacks on Volcano monitoring:

The number was an order of magnitude too big compared to volcano monitoring. That number was for all kinds of other things as well. That’s only one mistake. The other, I think, incredible mistake is that it’s like so many other specialized kinds of hazards. It’s sort of like throwing stones when you live in a glass house. Here’s a guy who lives on the Gulf Coast, hurricane country. By the way, the Mississippi River—huge hazards from that as well. Floods, levees. And he’s worried about someone else getting money from a different kind of hazard. It’s incredible. That’s what I was struck by just listening to it.

Another thing I have to tell you is, as a government employee—when I say that, I’m speaking as a private citizen. The point is, there are many kinds of hazards. I happen to deal with volcanoes. They’re palpable to me. This is my stock in trade. Hurricanes are that to him, because he’s been around a few. I see this as a difference of opinion, but I also see, and many people have made this comment, that there’s an anti-science vein in that. In other words, I have a feeling he could have attacked some other branch of science. He just thought this one was an easy one to pick on, maybe because of the word “explosion” and that sort of thing.

I find it troubling when people don’t see the public good, the public health in this sort of thing. In the case of volcanoes, for example, Mount Pinatubo, about a million and a half dollars saved hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. property [at former U.S. Air Force station Clark Air Base] when it erupted. It’s very nice to know that it’s going to erupt! And it’s relatively cheap to do that kind of preventative, exploratory work, looking for symptoms before this crisis happens—to warn people to get their aircraft away from it, to take steps to be preventative. I’m afraid government isn’t very good at that. It’s sad. You can see when you see so many contentious people who are unwilling to spend money outside of their own particular area of concern. That’s what troubles me.

There’s a strong case to be made that the government systematically underinvests in the whole class of activities that, like volcano monitoring, involve preventing or mitigating the harm caused by unlikely events. The up-front expenditures, though small, are easy to mock. And the beneficiaries are often invisible precisely because the events in question are unlikely. The big one on this score is probably the possibility of an asteroid or meteor colliding with the earth. But volcanos count, too.