Volcanic unrest and hazard communication in Long Valley Volcanic Region, California

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Abstract

The onset of volcanic unrest in Long Valley Caldera, California, in 1980 and the subsequent fluctuations in unrest levels through May 2016 illustrate: (1) the evolving relations between scientists monitoring the unrest and studying the underlying tectonic/magmatic processes and their implications for geologic hazards, and (2) the challenges in communicating the significance of the hazards to the public and civil authorities in a mountain resort setting. Circumstances special to this case include (1) the sensitivity of an isolated resort area to media hype of potential high-impact volcanic and earthquake hazards and its impact on potential recreational visitors and the local economy, (2) a small permanent population (~8000), which facilitates face-to-face communication between scientists monitoring the hazard, civil authorities, and the public, and (3) the relatively frequent turnover of people in positions of civil authority, which requires a continuing education effort on the nature of caldera unrest and related hazards. Because of delays associated with communication protocols between the State and Federal governments during the onset of unrest, local civil authorities and the public first learned that the U.S. Geological Survey was about to release a notice of potential volcanic hazards associated with earthquake activity and 25-cm uplift of the resurgent dome in the center of the caldera through an article in the Los Angeles Times published in May 1982. The immediate reaction was outrage and denial. Gradual acceptance that the hazard was real required over a decade of frequent meetings between scientists and civil authorities together with public presentations underscored by frequently felt earthquakes and the onset of magmatic CO2 emissions in 1990 following a 11-month long earthquake swarm beneath Mammoth Mountain on the southwest rim of the caldera. Four fatalities, one on 24 May 1998 and three on 6 April 2006, underscored the hazard posed by the CO2 emissions. Initial response plans developed by county and state agencies in response to the volcanic unrest began with “The Mono County Volcano Contingency Plan” and “Plan Caldera” by the California Office of Emergency Services in 1982–84. They subsequently became integrated in the regularly updated County Emergency Operation Plan. The alert level system employed by the USGS also evolved from the three-level “Notice-Watch-Warning” system of the early 1980s through a five level color-code to the current “Normal-Advisory-Watch-Warning” ground-based system in conjunction with the international 4-level aviation color-code for volcanic ash hazards. Field trips led by the scientists proved to be a particularly effective means of acquainting local residents and officials with the geologically active environment in which they reside. Relative caldera quiescence from 2000 through 2011 required continued efforts to remind an evolving population that the hazards posed by the 1980–2000 unrest persisted. Renewed uplift of the resurgent dome from 2011 to 2014 was accompanied by an increase in low-level earthquake activity in the caldera and beneath Mammoth Mountain and continues through May 2016. As unrest levels continue to wax and wane, so will the communication challenges.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Volcanic unrest and hazard communication in Long Valley Volcanic Region, California
DOI 10.1007/11157_2016_32
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Volcano Science Center
Description 17 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Monograph
Larger Work Title Advances in volcanology
First page 1
Last page 17