In early August, Pago volcano, on the central coast of New Britain Island, suddenly began exploding rocks and volcanic ash into the air. Thousands of nearby residents quickly left their homes and work to escape possible injury or death. This week as many as 10,000 people are still evacuated from the immediate area around Pago. Sporadic explosions, ashfall, and an erupting lava flow are clear signs that the volcano is not yet finished.
Pago can produce large explosive eruptions that would endanger as many as 30,000 people within 30 km (19 miles). Scientists are now establishing the first ever-monitoring network on the volcano, even while it erupts unpredictably! Volcano monitoring is desperately needed to track the volcano’s activity and assess the possibility of more intense and more hazardous activity.
A team of experienced scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program is now in Papua New Guinea working with colleagues from Rabaul Volcano Observatory. Headquartered at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, the program supports the only dedicated rapid volcano-response team in the world.
The USGS and Rabaul teams are now actively installing a small network of three or four seismometers to track Pago’s earthquake activity. Also, several continuously recording GPS receivers will help to determine the extent and rate of ground deformation due to magma movement. The USGS team’s work on Pago volcano is turning out to be one of its most challenging. The area is extremely rugged and thickly carpeted with rain forest, roads are lacking, helicopter availability is limited, and the volcano is producing sporadic explosions. The team has no way of knowing if the explosions will get larger or not, but geologic studies indicate Pago is clearly capable of producing much larger and more dangerous eruptions.