U.S. Geological Survey: Volcano Monitoring


Volcano monitoring setup
Augustine Volcano Field work, August, 2006. Staging area: storage huts for geophysical gear, pallets of batteries. Augustine in background. Photographer: Bull, Kate
Image courtesy of the AVO/ADGGS

The United States is one of the most volcanically-active regions in the world, with 169 geologically active volcanoes, of which 54 are a high or very high threat to public safety. Many of the dangerous volcanoes in the United States may not be monitored well enough for scientists to warn the public of explosive eruptions, alert aircraft of ash clouds, or warn communities of lava and mud flows.

Recovery Act Funding

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $15.2 million to the U.S. Geological Survey to modernize the monitoring networks and warning systems at its five volcano observatories – Alaska, Cascades (WA), Hawaiian, Long Valley (CA), and Yellowstone (Yellowstone National Park).


Recovery Act funds will be used to modernize this warning system. Aging analog seismic instruments will be replaced with new digital instruments that record a fuller range of the “sounds” (tiny earthquakes) that rising magma makes. The use of continuous geodetic positioning system (GPS) instruments will be expanded to provide early detection of volcano unrest and an improved estimate of the size of impending eruptions. Gas sensors will be added where toxic gases are a problem. Additional improvements will be made to the transmission systems that send data from the volcanoes to the observatories for analysis, to the systems that acquire and analyze satellite data, and to the hazard assessments that guide monitoring of volcanoes and communication with communities.

A major portion of the funds will create or preserve jobs at universities, state agencies and in the private sector. This includes jobs for university students and scientists who participate in volcano monitoring; state scientists who conduct hazard assessments and hazard communication activities; workers at companies that manufacture equipment such as seismometers, GPS instruments and radio communications equipment; and workers at helicopter companies who help experts access remote and dangerous volcanoes.

Modern technology makes it possible to “hear” magma (molten rock) coming up beneath a restless volcano, to measure the swelling of the volcano as magma rises into it, and to watch from satellites and aircraft as the volcano heats up and releases toxic gases. Not only can eruptions be detected immediately when they occur, but they can often be forecast, giving people, businesses, and communities valuable time to prepare. Timely warnings are especially important to the aviation industry because ash clouds pose a potentially lethal threat to high-flying jet aircraft, and for communities and transportation arteries below volcanoes that could be inundated by mudflows or lava flows. To be most useful, warnings depend not only on monitoring data but also on careful hazard assessments that identify how a volcano has behaved in the past and what areas and facilities are at risk.

Secretary Salazar has noted that Mount Redoubt Volcano, 106 miles southwest of Anchorage and in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, erupted explosively numerous times since March 22, 2009, sending ash skyrocketing as high as 65,000 feet into the air, causing airlines to cancel or divert flights, at times closing Anchorage’s busy international airport, and threatening oil facilities in Cook Inlet. Volcanic activity may continue for weeks to months.

Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) issued warnings of an impending eruption and daily updates on the volcano’s status beginning January 23, after recording increased seismic activity at the volcano, giving communities and businesses time to prepare. AVO continues to monitor events round-the-clock, working with colleagues at NOAA’s National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other federal and state agencies to minimize social and economic disruption caused by the eruption.

The Department of the Interior has a large role in helping create jobs, invest in life-saving science that protects people and property, and inspire youth to public service. Many U.S. volcanoes are national treasures. USGS volcano observatories help protect the safety of visitors to continuously erupting Kilauea Volcano in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park and to continuously restless Yellowstone Caldera in Yellowstone National Park.

Further information

DOI Recovery Investments by Bureau

Last Updated: February 02, 2012
Content contact: recovery@ios.doi.gov