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Originally published May 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 18, 2005 at 3:30 PM

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A cloudy future for volcano experts

Dan Dzurisin was on the rim of Mount St. Helens last week when the volcano started to rumble. Though clouds blocked his view of the crater...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dan Dzurisin was on the rim of Mount St. Helens last week when the volcano started to rumble.

Though clouds blocked his view of the crater, Dzurisin, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist, knew what was going on.

It sounded like a clumsy waiter dropping a tray full of plates — only much louder.

The sharp clatter meant freshly minted volcanic rock was crashing down, Dzurisin said. Indeed, when the mist cleared, he saw a chunk the length of a semi-trailer had toppled from the new lava dome growing on the crater floor since last October.

Less experienced ears might not have been so discerning, but Dzurisin (pronounced Zur-ish-in) has been tuned into volcanoes for nearly three decades.

In 1980, when St. Helens was building toward the massive explosion that occurred 25 years ago today, he was a novice thrilled to be working alongside the nation's top volcano experts. With the ground shaking under their feet, they feverishly wired the mountain to gauge its tremors and hundreds of steam and ash explosions. They used reflectors and laser beams to measure ground swelling, which accelerated to nearly 5 feet a day on the mountain's bulging north side.


Dan Dzurisin

During a brief lull in activity, Dzurisin returned to his temporary Geological Survey job in Hawaii, where he got the news early May 18: A magnitude 5.1 earthquake had triggered the largest landslide in recorded history and a lateral blast that obliterated everything in its path.

He caught the next plane out and has been stationed in Washington ever since.

Dzurisin, 53, is part of a generation of volcanologists whose careers were shaped by that day in 1980. Several already have retired. Many others will follow suit soon, taking with them an enormous reservoir of knowledge about what to expect from fitful volcanoes, how to coax data from deep within the Earth and the best ways to deal with the public, police and politicians during a volcanic crisis.

A changing of the guard isn't usually cause for concern, but Dzurisin and his colleagues aren't sure who will be there to replace them when they go.

Marking the day


The U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory will host an open house on Saturday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Mount St. Helens' 1980 eruption. Scientists and staff will be on hand to talk about volcanoes and demonstrate the latest monitoring techniques. Exhibits will explain the eruptive histories and hazards of other Cascades volcanoes. The event will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The observatory is located at 1300 S.E. Cardinal Court, Building 10, Suite 100, Vancouver, Wash. Directions are available at: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/

CVO_Info/cvo_location_map_text.html.

For more information, call 360-993-8973.

Seattle's Museum of History & Industry will mark the anniversary today with a special program at 7 p.m. Austin Jenkins, Northwest News Network's Olympia correspondent, will tell the story of his ill-timed scouting trip that ended with the eruption. Other speakers also will reflect on the eruption. The museum is at 2700 24th Ave. E., in the Montlake neighborhood. The program is free to the public.

If you're up to a drive, today is a free day for the public at the mountain's National Volcanic Monument, including the visitor centers on Highway 504.

Because of flat budgets, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has hired so few young scientists in recent years that the nation's volcano-monitoring programs could collapse when Dzurisin's generation exits, a National Research Council panel warned five years ago.

Since then, the picture has worsened, with 65 percent of the staff at USGS' Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., eligible for retirement in five years. At the same time, promising students have shunned volcanology for other fields because job prospects have been so poor.

"The mantra has been: In a few years, we'll start hiring," Dzurisin said. "I've been saying that for a decade now."

Now an authority on the way volcanoes swell and deform before eruptions, Dzurisin honed his craft with the help of more experienced scientists who converged on Mount St. Helens in the early 1980s.

He worries the next generation of volcanologists won't benefit from that type of apprenticeship, so crucial in a field where it can be just as important to know how to trouble-shoot a broken sensor in a snow bank as to interpret the data it yields.

If the USGS doesn't start replenishing its scientific ranks soon, public safety could suffer when volcanoes like Mount Rainier or Mount Baker awaken and the agency lacks the personnel and expertise to evaluate the dangers, said Arizona State University volcanologist Jonathan Fink, who headed the NRC panel.

"We need to be talking about these things before they happen," he said. "Not afterward."

Three weeks ago, the Geological Survey proposed a major expansion that would allow it to hire new researchers and more closely monitor Mount Rainier and other "very high threat" volcanoes in the Cascades and Alaska. But the plan will come to fruition only if the agency can persuade a tightfisted Congress to nearly double the $20 million a year it invests in volcano studies and hazard-reduction programs.

Enthusiasm, but no job

One of the reasons Alison Eckberg is drawn to a career in volcanology is that she was born the year of Mount St. Helens' big blast.

Her parents took her to the mountain at the age of 8, and the images of flattened forests and charred stumps stuck with the scientifically-minded little girl from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

So she majored in geology and landed a summer job at Johnston Ridge Observatory, the Forest Service visitor center closest to the volcano. She schooled herself in the history of the 1980 eruption and shared the mind-boggling details with visitors: nearly 25 square miles of forest and valleys buried beneath up to 200 feet of mud; ash clouds so thick they blocked the sun hundreds of miles away; a superheated surge of rock and gas that roared off the mountain at more than 200 mph; 57 people killed, including USGS scientist Dave Johnston, who was camped on the mountain.

When the volcano started to rattle and belch steam and ash last fall, Eckberg was hooked. "Being five miles from an erupting volcano really increased my enthusiasm about volcanology," she said.

On her days off, she volunteered for the USGS, sorting and analyzing ash and rock samples. She sat in on daily meetings where scientists shared data and debated what the volcano might do. The experience was so invigorating she decided to go for a graduate degree in geology.

But like many young people who would love to work on volcanoes, Eckberg is tempering her dream with practicality. Instead of specializing in volcanoes, she may opt for mining exploration, where she'll have a better chance of finding a job.

"I would absolutely love to go into volcanology, but it's such a small field and it's so hard to get into," she said.

Curtis Manley faced that harsh reality after earning a Ph.D. in 1994 for his studies of lava domes. Jobs with the USGS were nonexistent, and university positions were nearly as scarce. His only hope was a succession of postdoctoral appointments or temporary teaching gigs, which would require him to drag his family back and forth across the country.

"It was a big disappointment to realize that without a lot of luck, there wouldn't be anything for me in the field," he said.

For the past five years, he has worked for Microsoft, tracking the performance of the company's e-mail server. It's interesting, he says. But the passion in his voice shines through when he talks about magma and volcanic gases and the explosive brews they can create.

He'd like to think he'll be able to find a way back to the field he loves but knows the odds get slimmer every year.

"You can't wait forever," he said. "You need to find something to do."

Blast surprised researchers

Spry and trim, Dzurisin — whose colleagues call him "DZ" — still relishes the field days that get him out of his office and up on the volcano.

"Isn't that beautiful?" he asked last week, standing on the mountain's rim and watching a plume of steam and gas waft from the new lava dome, which continues to grow at a rate of up to 10 feet a day.

A helicopter had dropped Dzurisin off on the mountain so he could set up a camera to snap pictures of the new dome every three minutes. He hopes to capture the jerky movement of the nearly-solid lava as it emerges from the ground. The continuous outpouring is very different from the episodic eruptions that built a dome in the 1980s — showing that scientists can still learn from Mount St. Helens.

"It's full of surprises," Dzurisin said.

The fury and form of the 1980 eruption caught researchers off guard. It also revolutionized the practice of volcanology, bringing together scientists with different specialties, opening up jobs for people like Dzurisin, and leading to the creation of volcano labs in Washington, Alaska and California.

The drama drew students to the field, and the federal budget for volcano research increased tenfold. By 1987, more than 100 people worked at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Today, the number is half that. The combination of stagnant budgets and rising costs — including salaries that are automatically boosted every year — means USGS can afford to hire only one or two new people for every five who retire, said Cynthia Gardner, the observatory's scientist-in-charge.

A USGS analysis released last month found that many of the most dangerous volcanoes in the United States are not being monitored well enough to provide adequate warning of eruptions or ash plumes that can choke jet engines and cause airliners to plummet. The agency is proposing a National Volcano Early Warning System of sensors to better detect the tremors and swelling that herald volcanic unrest. At a cost of $15 million a year, the program also would include a beefed-up staff to monitor and analyze the new data.

Mike Poland will be tracking the proposal's fate from 2,500 miles away on the Big Island of Hawaii. At 29, he's one of the youngest volcanologists in the USGS. Until he was transferred a few months ago, Poland was exactly where he wanted to be: in the thick of the excitement at Mount St. Helens.

"To have a volcano like that erupt in your lifetime is tremendously special," he said. "I was just pumped — full of adrenaline every day."

But his position was funded by a short-term grant from NASA. The only permanent USGS slot was in Hawaii.

"It was tough to leave," he said. "It was like closing a great book in the middle and walking away."

With a coveted USGS job, Poland is one of the lucky few. He'll probably rotate back to the Northwest in a few years. He's hoping the agency will have money to hire a nucleus of younger scientists to join him — not only for camaraderie, but also to absorb knowledge from veterans like Dzurisin while they can.

Dzurisin mentored Poland during his stint in Washington and is heartened that volcanology can attract bright, young people, despite all the hurdles.

"There are still folks out there to carry the torch," he said. "We just have to find a way to pass it to them."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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