Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal:

To say that I was shocked, appalled and dismayed on hearing the "volcano monitoring" comment in your speech following President Obama's address to Congress would be a massive understatement.

You, and anyone who thought that including that comment in the Republican rebuttal was a good idea, are guilty of the dangerous and pervasive attitude of willful ignorance about science that has sadly pervaded the government of this country in the past eight years. It is extremely frightening that you, the governor of a state that recently experienced a major natural disaster, think that the paltry amounts spent on volcano monitoring in our country are a waste of money.

It is simply appalling that you cannot be bothered to educate yourself about some of the most basic knowledge that geologic science has to offer. Volcanoes are extremely dangerous and costly phenomena. The people of states like Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, depend on volcano monitoring to preserve their lives and livelihoods.

Perhaps you think that $140 million is too high a price to pay for the thousands of lives that were saved by volcano monitoring during the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption? Or the millions of dollars in commerce and countless lives that are preserved by monitoring Alaskan volcanoes which lie in the flight paths of major shipping and passenger airlines? Are you the least bit aware that a major volcanic eruption could produce enough ash to reach even Louisiana, disrupting or shutting down air traffic for thousands of miles and crippling our country's airline industry? Or that an eruption or collapse of Mount Rainier could kill or displace tens of thousands of people with ash falls, pyroclastic flows and mudflows?

Lack of monitoring and communication caused the needless deaths of 23,000 people in the 1985 eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz volcano in Columbia. Would you prefer that we, a technologically rich country with the expertise and resources to prevent such a disaster, should eliminate the very monitoring programs that enable us to do so just because politicians like you can't be troubled to learn about why they're so important?

Your attitude toward volcano monitoring as a representative of our country's government is irresponsible and potentially deadly. If you suggest that we should discontinue volcano monitoring simply because you refuse to make the effort to understand it, then you are making yourself personally accountable for the lives, property and money that will be lost in volcanic eruptions. I am sure you will be happy to explain to the American citizens who will suffer from your recommendations why your state deserves funding to monitor and mitigate the hazards associated with flooding and hurricanes, but their homes and lives are unworthy of protection.

$140 million is a small price to pay to prevent the millions, possibly billions of dollars in property and commerce and tens of thousands of lives that will be in danger in the event of a volcanic eruption in the United States. Even now, Redoubt volcano in Alaska is showing signs that it may soon erupt, and the effects of such an eruption will not only impact the people of Alaska, they will affect the oil, fishing, and airline industries as well. Saying that we should discontinue volcano monitoring in the midst of a potential volcanic crisis is stupid, irresponsible and ignorant.

Blind adherence to politics is one of the reasons that America is in the middle of an economic crisis today. Don't make it worse by adding natural disasters to the mix.

You have, in your callous, ill-educated and ill-considered words, grievously insulted the men and women of the geologic community who have dedicated their lives to protecting others from natural hazards such as volcanoes. They do their work for the sake of ordinary Americans who, on their own, have no way of understanding or preparing for volcanic eruptions. You show enormous disrespect for the scientists who safeguard the safety of those who live in the shadow of active volcanoes.

I am truly frightened by anyone who claims to represent American citizens in public office by making such irresponsible and, frankly, stupid statements about scientific endeavors that he has made no effort to understand. You, and anyone who supports you in this statement, are unworthy of being responsible for the safety of the American public, and I hope that those in charge of our nation's budget will rightly ignore your hideously bad ideas.

Update: There are a lot of people that feel just as strongly about this as I do.

Maria Brumm at Green Gabbro (and again)
Garry Hayes at Geotripper
Ralph Harrington at The Volcanism Blog
Eric at The Dynamic Earth
Phil Plait at The Bad Astronomy Blog
Dave Schumaker at Geology News (and again)
Anna at Adventures in the world of Geology
Andrew Alden at About Geology
Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous
Short Geologist at Accidental Remediation


hypocentre said...

Hear hear!

Very eloquently put.

This is probably worth putting on an electronic petition site where other geologists from around the world could sign up to this? I gladly would.

volcanista said...

Word. I linked to your post because I couldn't bring myself to do more than just be sarcastic at him. gah!

Tuff Cookie said...

I'm up for it. Any suggestions for petition sites?

Silver Fox said...

Right on, with your letter. I don't have any ideas about petition sites, though.

Julian said...

Very eloquent, very true, and it deserves to be read.

Did you actually send this to Jindal? You totally should.

I also don't know anything about petition sites off the top of my head, but I know I signed some No On Prop 8 ones, so I'll see if those sites allow creation of a new petition.

Callan Bentley said...

Well put, Jess.

Tuff Cookie said...

You know, I think I will send this to him. He deserves to hear that he's an idiot on paper as well as over the interwebs.

GabbroGuy said...

Note that the $140M in the stimulus bill was for a wide range of USGS infrastructure-type items, of which seismic and volcano monitoring was just one thing on the list. Who knows how much of that will actually go into the monitoring program.

Mike said...

Look, I don't think he opposes it for the reasons you've outlined.

Jindal is in opposition to the inclusion of spending that isn't directly related to stimulating the economy, not expenditures like this that would normally be set aside for the normal appropriations process.

I think this is a common misconception about classically liberal conservatives in politics. It isn't about a lack of support for science, it's about excessive spending by the government.

Well written argument, though. I'd send it on to Jindal.

Tuff Cookie said...

Mike, you do have a point. But where do you think monetary support for science comes from? Mostly the government. The money that is spent on volcano monitoring - a small part of a dwindling budget for the USGS, I might add - is incredibly minor compared to the costs it prevents.

That money has to come from some sort of budget. Perhaps this isn't the correct bill to attach it to, but Jindal suggesting that it shouldn't be spent at all is just irresponsible - and that's pretty much what he did.

Now, if he wanted to suggest that Congress should stop tacking on random expenditures to a bill that wasn't meant to address them in the first place, he should out and say it - and I'd probably agree with him, provided they were properly addressed at another time.

Mike said...

Tuff Cookie, you're certainly right about monetary support for science. I'm sorry to see it dwindle in the face of what seems like more pressing concerns to politicians as science is clearly one of the most important pursuits we can spend public monies on.

In this case, I think it can be inferred that he was referring to the spending outlined in the stimulus as he specifically refers to it prior to discussing this spending: "While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending" (

To me this signals that it is wasteful in this instance rather than in general.

I suppose, though, we'll probably not agree, but I enjoyed this short discussion.

Again, send it on to Jindal, he would certainly deserve the chance to rebut the argument--if he ever would.

Kim said...

About the argument that this isn't stimulus: the money is to replace and upgrade equipment. (And not just on volcanoes - stream gages, too.) That's infrastructure, as much as bridges and highways are.

behncke said...

I thoroughly like your letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, as much as I dislike his statements (I am rather astounded somebody can be that short-sighted, although it's part of a much broader concept, which has brought America where it is, unfortunately). I am very worried that here in Italy, with the Berlusconi government, we are facing similar attitudes in some politicians, like those who are intending to fire all the staff of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV - the Italian agency responsible for seismic and volcano monitoring) who have time-limited contracts. In reality, these people represent nearly half of the total INGV staff, which would mean their unemployment would bring the collapse of volcano and earthquake monitoring in this country. It is unfortunately an essential part of human nature to think of disasters only once they have happened. Prevention is often not given any consideration, because it is not believed to bring any economic advantages (which is an error). I hope Gov. Bobby Jindal will be aware of the wave of protest unleashed by his remarks and quietly disappear from the stage. Let me know if there's some petition site to sign, I'll gladly do so. said...

Thanks for standing up for earth science!

BHC said...

While I agree with the conservative principle that government for its own sake is a bad idea, I don't think monitoring natural hazards is an unreasonable expansion of the government. Most conservative politicians would probably concede this, but the stricter ones would probably maintain that hazard monitoring is better left to local municipalities (which is debatable).

It looks as if the governor is arguing that spending for things that don't directly stimulate the economy in a "stimulus" bill is unreasonable.

But as others have already pointed out equipment used to monitor volcanoes for public safety could be considered critical infrastructure just as much as proper maintenance of a bridge is important to public safety. Just because large numbers of citizens use bridges but not many use seismometers doesn't mean the latter is somehow less important to our safety. And for either task, the government needs to make purchases from the private sector, which will stimulate the economy (or so says those who back it).

So it seems logically inconsistent to me to single out volcano monitoring to 'pick on' as an example of waste when there is probably a lot of other spending in the package that is far less critical to public safety.

Explorergal said...

I agree with Mike. The stimulus bill is so filled with items not related to what it is designed to do.
I would think if you would post this to Jindal, he would agree that the funding for this should NOT be stopped....just not in that particular bill.

JayCee said...

Whoa, someone's upset! I basically agree with everything you said, politicians can be very shortsighted and think nothing of cutting programs they know very little about. A word of caution, remember you are writing in a public forum and, once your words go out over the web, they are never completely yours again.

Good work.

Don Jacobson said...

As a politician on a Natural Resource District board here in Nebraska I will defend USGS funding as strongly as I can. They are great partners in many areas. Having said that,
Their budget should be debated on its merits, not tossed into the pork stew called a "stimulus" bill.
Don Jacobson

plastik said...

In your original comment you wrote:

"Are you the least bit aware that a major volcanic eruption could produce enough ash to reach even Louisiana, disrupting or shutting down air traffic for thousands of miles and crippling our country's airline industry? Or that an eruption or collapse of Mount Rainier could kill or displace tens of thousands of people with ash falls, pyroclastic flows and mudflows?"

Does this mean by sucking the staggering amount of ONE HUNDRED FORTY MILLION DOLLARS from the taxpayers pockets you can STOP a Volcano from spewing it's deadly gasses or sending ash that would reach LA?

Didn't think so.


Tuff Cookie said...

plastik wrote:

"Does this mean by sucking the staggering amount of ONE HUNDRED FORTY MILLION DOLLARS from the taxpayers pockets you can STOP a Volcano from spewing it's deadly gasses or sending ash that would reach LA?"

plastik, of course you can't stop a volcano from erupting. You're assuming that's what the money is budgeted for, which is incorrect. Money spent on hurricane forecasting is not spent trying to stop a hurricane - it's to help warn people when one is coming. Volcano monitoring does the same thing with eruptions. Your comment was true, but pointless, and showed that you didn't pay a whole lot of attention to my post in the first place.

As GabbroGuy said, the money was budgeted for a number of projects the USGS is involved in, and a small part of them include natural hazard monitoring. And, while millions of dollars may seem like a large sum to you, remember that your individual contribution as a taxpayer is minuscule - and that this stimulus bill involves almost $800 billion dollars. $140 million is less than 0.02% of that sum - in other words, a paltry amount.

Peter said...

Perhaps the people in the endangered areas should pay to monitor their own volcanoes?

At the same time, I don't see Gov. Jindal turning down Federal money to re-build New Orleans. He is being hypocritical, isn't he?

brian said...

Sorry, I hope the government fed geoscience community can accept dissent from a water resource engineer. I have been involved with USGS on three different NPL Superfund projects and I come away with the distinct impression that they could never function within the private sector budgetary and time constraints. Sorry I cannot condemn Governor Jindal for his comments and first hand experience with the USACE and other Fed agencies that supposedly protect the lives and property of the citizens of Louisiana. Does the USGS already have a budget for volcano monitoring in the U.S.? I think so. If government is going to run businesses it better start showing some efficiency. Why does there need to be a feeding frenzy on stimulus money amongst every segment of the professional scientific field? Is current volcanic monitoring really inadequate? Ask yourself if s $140MM really going to contribute to our economic recovery?

ThoughtCriminal said...

Only a small portion of the $140 million is for volcano monitoring, it also includes funds for stream gauges, seismic monitoring and other projects. Updating, maintaining, and expanding these instruments is not only good science, they represent a vital part of our neglected infrastructure. I notice today that Jindal's spokesman defended his statement and called volcano monitoring "Wasteful".

soreng said...

Sorry, I think I don't understand how it would not be stimulus to put money into the economy. Provided those instruments are made in the US I think it could also make perfect sense to give companies that make them some business, and not least to help keep them in business through the crisis. The federal budget may be forced to focus on other things (energy, health, education) the coming years, so the program would seem to make excellent sense as part of infrastructure spending. seems to make sense?

The Crater Lake Hermit said...

Jindal is not a stupid man and probably is not really against scientific research. He is creating a certain image as a politician and thus can never admit that publicly. His comments were directed specifically at a constituency that is either anti science or hates anything Democratic. He wants to gain their support for a presidential run. Expect him to continue blasting away with his political rhetoric regardless of truth, accuracy or factual basis. He wants to leave a specific impression in the minds of that unique constituency, of which, sadly there are many. Many like me will reject him, but there are plenty of our fellow citizens that will delight in his attacks and become even more ardent in support of him.