20th Anniversary of the Smithsonian / USGS Weekly Volcanic Activity Report
The first week of November 2020 marks 20 years since the first Weekly Volcanic Activity Report (WVAR) went public. It is a big milestone and worth celebrating, and what a better way to do that than with summaries of notable eruptions! My name is Sally Sennert. I work for the USGS and have been writing the WVAR for more than 14 years while embedded with GVP. I wanted to share with you how and why the WVAR got started, how it has evolved through time, and finally my top 50 picks of notable eruptions that have occurred in the past two decades.
The Weekly Volcanic Activity Report is a summary of global volcanic activity posted every Wednesday. It is a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program and the USGS Volcano Hazards Program. It was conceived in the late 1990s by Marianne Guffanti, the former USGS Volcano Hazards Program Coordinator, and James Luhr, the former GVP Director, to meet increasing expectations on both agencies to provide the public with more timely information about volcanic eruptions. USGS employee Gari Mayberry arrived at the Smithsonian in the summer of 2000 and produced the first public WVAR in collaboration with GVP staff, which covered 1-7 November 2000. I succeeded Gari in May 2006 and remain the WVAR writer. For the entire 20 years, Ed Venzke has provided crucial editorial reviews and helped to ensure both accuracy and a consistent style (rarely have I received a "star" and no edits, which we both find humorous).
Each week I virtually tour the world in search of information about volcanic eruptions. The world's volcano observatories are the first and most important stop as they are the primary and most authoritative source of eruption data. Additional sources include the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAACs), meteorological agencies, civil protection and emergency management agencies, local governments, official blogs, social media platforms, and news agencies. I draw upon all the resources I can find to write the most comprehensive and accurate summary possible within the time constraints, as eruptions and communication about them are handled differently around the world. I check and cross-check information and draw upon my years of experience in volcanology and knowledge of the volcanoes on which I am reporting. I have a duty to not mis-interpret reports, to archive crucial observations, and to always present accurate volcanic activity information.
Aside from knowing where to get accurate information (a harder task than may be obvious), gathering and archiving the data, each week I have the monumental task of distilling down hundreds of pages of information into one or two dozen succinct summaries. One crucial skill in this process is to "translate" the translations as most of the source data is not in English and the online translators are far from perfect; I can say with a large amount of confidence that I am quite good at this. It is a skill that should not be underestimated. In an official report about San Cristobal how would you interpret, "INETER reports that monkeypox activity recorded during this weekend?" Some translations are just hysterical. "The main crater was obstructed by a cone of pyroclasts of proportions, that on the brink of madness surpassed in height the elevated top more of the volcano." Madness, I tell you.
The most notable changes in eruption reporting evolved with the prevalence of cell phone usage and their ability to produce quality video, the widespread use of social media, and more recently the increase in personal drone usage for taking photos and video. Social media is of course the vehicle for sharing observations and data for both official entities and the public. These advances help me to curate a more thorough and detailed picture of an eruptive event, though data tends to be scattered across many platforms and delivered in many languages.
While reflecting on the past 14 years of my experiences writing the WVAR and looking further back through Gari's reports, several eruptions stand out for a variety of reasons. Some eruptions were surprises (and large), with almost no precursory events. Some were at remote volcanoes, not officially part of any observatory's charge, so information was hard to find; my sleuthing abilities were tested as I had to not only find often fragmented information but then make sense of it all based on my volcanological training. Some stand out because they were deadly. As I put this list together I also thought about the many other volcanoes that I have included in a WVAR and that did not make this list of notables; those that have impacted residents and caused loss of life and property, those that have led to advances in the field of volcanology, and those that have just been fun to write about. Many volcanoes feel like old friends as I have examined and written about their activity for years. All of them continue to draw me into the world of volcanoes and volcanology. They show me how the people of the world are impacted by eruptions and that there is much work still to be done. They remind me of the brave and compassionate people who work hard to minimize loss of life and property from eruptions. I am grateful to be a part of the world of volcanoes.
Sally's Picks: Interesting or noteworthy events during the previous 20 years