Thomas L. Murray, Andrew Lockhart, and Elliot Endo will fly from Portland, Oregon to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where they will board a U.S. military cargo plane carrying emergency supplies to Tokua, the closest functioning airport to the eruption site. From there, they will ferry their equipment to the volcano observatory as soon as conditions permit access to the area.
Two volcanoes near the city of Rabaul on the island of New Britain began erupting on the morning of September 19, and have blanketed the city and nearby villages with volcanic ash. More than 30,000 people were evacuated from the area a few hours before the start of the eruptions, preventing the loss of many lives. Property damage, however, is reported to be significant, with many buildings collapsing from the weight of the ash.
This first stage of USGS assistance will focus on installing instruments to monitor earthquakes and ground movements associated with the eruption. Many of the instruments used by RVO in the past to monitor the volcanoes have been destroyed by the eruptions.
The USGS assistance at Rabaul will be very similar to USGS assistance in the Philippines prior to and during the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo during June 1991. Those eruptions damaged and led to the eventual closing of the U.S. Clark Air Base.
The erupting volcanoes near Rabaul are located along the rim of a volcanic caldera, or collapse crater, about 6 miles in diameter. The caldera has been showing signs of unrest, including swarms of earthquakes and rapid uplift of the ground surface, since 1971. The Rabaul volcanoes last erupted in 1938, killing about 500 people.
"We're not only going there to help," said Dan Miller, head of the U.S. Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, "we're also going to learn." Miller said that the Rabaul caldera is geologically similar to the Long Valley caldera near Mammoth Lakes in eastern California, which has been restless since 1980. According to Miller, the USGS scientists may come back with knowledge that they can apply to monitoring the Long Valley caldera and other potentially active volcanoes in the western United States.
The Volcano Disaster Assistance Program is supported jointly by the USGS and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assisstance.