Gimarc: Alaska Volcano Observatory funding

By Alex Gimarc

Other than Hawaii, Alaska is the most volcanically active state in the union.  There are more than 130 volcanoes and volcanic fields in the state that have been active in the last 2 million years.  The Alaska Volcano Observatory monitors some 34 active volcanoes in Alaska on a real-time basis.

Alaska is the location of the largest eruption in North America over the last 2,000 years with a pair of blasts from Mount Churchill in Wrangell-St. Elias that deposited between 30-50 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic flows across central Alaska and western Canada.  Alaska is the location of the largest eruption worldwide in the last century as Katmai–Novarupta deposited some 30 cubic kilometers of stuff over a 60-hour series of eruptions in 1912.

Alaska also sits under very busy air traffic routes for passenger and cargo traffic.  The Great Circle Route from the U.S. to Asia essentially travels down the Aleutians.  The over-the-pole routes from Europe cross the state north to south.

In 1989, KLM Flight 867, a Boeing 747 enroute from Amsterdam to Tokyo encountered volcanic ash ejected from an eruption from Mount Redoubt over central Alaska and lost power in all four engines.  It descended more than 10,000 feet before getting some engines restarted and diverting to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  Total damage to the jet was $80 million and all four engines required replacement. The plane was carrying 245 people.

From this incident and other unpleasant aviation encounters with volcanic ash, it became important to monitor volcanic activity in Alaska and notify air traffic of ash clouds.  These predictions are just as important for safety of flight and flight planning as weather forecasts.

Starting in 2008 with the death of the earmark, the Alaska Volcano Observatory lost an Federal Aviation Administration grant that funded most of its active volcano monitoring program.  Since then, its overall budget has fallen from a high of about $9 million a year to a current $3.5 million a year. While that has taken place, it has lost the ability to monitor four volcanoes and needs to eventually deal with – and replace – an aging and deteriorating network of sensors.  The local McClatchy fish wrapper published the predictable article on the problem last month.

In the budget wars, $5.5 million is a relatively small dollar amount, especially from a $3.7 trillion federal budget.  One would wonder why this particular grant was singled out for a budget cut.  One would also wonder why our Boy Senator, who furiously is running from ObamaCare and other Democrat-created budgetary and regulatory disasters as fast as humanly possible, is unable to reinstate it. Is it because he simply is disinterested in civil aviation or is it because this was Ted Stevens’ baby and as such he just doesn’t care?

If I were a true cynic, I would guess that this particular, discrete budget cut came out of the political operation being run out of the Obama White House as a vehicle to punish Republican-led states for being insufficiently supportive of their malfeasance.  It has withheld federal disaster designations from Texas after wildfires and from Tennessee after serious flooding in the last six years.  It is after all, the Chicago Way to punish one’s enemies.

So the Obama White House decides to put commercial aviation at risk here in Alaska and the entire North Pacific Great Circle Route by cutting the observatory’s budget by more than 60 percent since 2008.  Perhaps it is time for the state of Alaska to take control of the problem and fund it via the state Department of Transportation via landing fees or University of Alaska funds, as public safety here in Alaska (safety of flight) would seem to be more important than fully funding a public institution that no longer is interested in constitutional rights (UA’s opposition to firearms on campus).

This would carry the extra attraction of embarrassing the Obama administration and our Boy Senator who was too busy providing “yes” votes to Obama and Harry Reid to pay attention to business and public safety here in Alaska.

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