Volcano watch on a budget

Two volcanoes — Mount Asama on the Nagano-Gunma border and Mount Sakurajima in Kagoshima — have become active although no large-scale eruptions have occurred. Japan is a volcanic country with 108 active volcanoes. The government should strengthen observation and research on volcanoes, and it is especially important to nurture a sufficient number of researchers.

Mount Asama had a small-scale eruption early Feb. 2, with the smoke rising about 2,000 meters above its crater and volcanic ash reaching as far as Izu Oshima Island more than 200 km away. Mount Sakurajima, meanwhile, repeated small-scale eruptions on Feb. 1 and 2, and the eruption alert level was raised. Since an earthquake caused by the movement of magma precedes an eruption, people may think that prediction of volcanic eruptions should be relatively easy. But this is not true. It must be kept in mind that volcanoes do not necessarily repeat familiar, similar patterns when they become active.

In the case of the volcanic eruptions on Miyake Island, off Tokyo, in the summer of 2000, an eruption occurred after the Coordination Committee for the Prediction of Volcanic Eruption declared the island “safe.” Volcanic activity on Miyake, consisting of a series of eruptions, quakes and releases of volcanic gases, turned out to be the most significant in about 2,500 years.

The Meteorological Agency now watches 34 of the nation’s 108 active volcanoes around the clock. The agency greatly relies on observation by researchers from national universities. Since the education ministry has decided to focus national universities’ research budgets and personnel on important volcanoes, observation of others may be terminated. Behind this move is the dwindling of government grants to national universities.

It is imperative that the Meteorological Agency nurture researchers and that national universities create attractive job positions for earth science majors. Wider sharing of research data between the agency and universities also should be pushed.