New seismic monitoring tech on Mt Hood faces another setback

Environment

Digital monitors key to early eruption detection can't be installed yet

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most dangerous volcanoes in the country — and scientists say we’re not paying nearly enough attention to them.

Right in our backyard, Mt. Hood could soon get some much-needed new monitoring systems, but a critical project 7 years in the making has now been delayed another year. After geologists spent the better part of a decade working to get government approval, they’re now dependent on Mother Nature’s cooperation.

They may not look like much just sitting on a flatbed truck, but these 3 digital monitoring stations could be key to getting a lifesaving “heads up” before Mt. Hood erupts.

Seismic monitors to go up on Mt. Hood. (KOIN)

“We want to make sure that Mt. Hood has the level of monitoring that is sufficient enough for the hazards that it poses,” explained Benjamin Pauk, an Operational Geophysist with the Cascade Volcano Observatory.

Hazards like an eruption that could send lahars, a type of volcanic mudflow, sliding down onto ski resorts, highways and rivers. An eruption would blanket the area in plumes of toxic ash and would have the potential to threaten surrounding communities as well as air travel in and out of PDX Airport.

The impacts could be devasting, which is why geophysicists like Pauk said the more warning we have, the better. The best way to do that is with monitoring stations anchored to the ground around Mt. Hood that can tell if the volcano starts to swell.

“So as magma moves in from depth into the volcano itself, it’s going to inflate, kinda like a balloon,” explained Pauk. “Those GPS receivers are going to move away from one another.”

And they’re sensitive enough to feel that — even if it’s only a few centimeters.

Map of Mt. Hood at Benjamin Pauk’s office desktop computer. (KOIN)

Pauk points to a map of the mountain in his office dotted with recent earthquakes and different colored triangles. The red triangles are the existing seismometers, while the yellow ones are the new stations the USGS wants to install. They’re on the west, north and east faces of the mountain in a protected wilderness area. That’s made this process much more difficult.

“It requires installing new equipment in the wilderness,” said Pauk. “The quickest and most efficient way to do so is using a helicopter.”

Using a helicopter is only allowed with a special permit from the forest service. The team began scouting sites in 2012, and filed their first permit in 2014. After 5 years of review and public comment, they were finally granted permission in August of this year.

Then, nature posed another problem. The team waited until after Labor Day to avoid nesting birds and the busy summer tourist season. But an unusually cold and wet September meant the team wasn’t able to get it done this year before the snow sets in.

Now, they wait for next fall — and hope the mountain stays quiet for one more year.

Undated photo of electronically recorded seismic activity. (KOIN)

“We feel we need to have these instruments in the ground before activity starts,” he said. “If there was a small uptick in activity and we didn’t have a sufficient monitoring network in it, we’d be putting ourselves in a situation where we’d be playing catch up.”

If that’s the case, the team would have to go in there after it’s too late.

Once these new stations are online, Mt. Hood will have 11 different monitoring stations, putting it on par with the level of monitoring at Mt. Rainier. Both fall short compared to the monitoring at Mt. St. Helens, which has 21.

Pauk said the team scouted installation sites that are far off any trails. The monitors are painted to blend in, and quietly run on solar-powered batteries.

After they’re installed, they should be out of the way of most hikers who are enjoying the wilderness area.

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