Japan plans an eruption in number of volcanologists
By TAIRIKU KUROSAWA/ Senior Staff Writer
Japan might lie on the explosive Pacific Ring of Fire but it boasts a pitiful number of volcanologists, so few that they have been described as an "endangered species."
The science ministry and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) are aiming to address this chronic lack of personnel by dramatically increasing the number of experts as well as those monitoring volcanoes around Japan.
While there are 110 active volcanoes in Japan, with almost 50 requiring constant monitoring, there are only 81 researchers--47 at universities and 34 at national research institutes, according to the science ministry.
The ministry plans to double the number of volcanologists over a five-year period.
A coordinating body linking universities to research institutes will be established and researchers in related fields will be brought in. The plan is to foster personnel who will become involved in comprehensive research with observation, prediction and measures to deal with eruptions.
The project is scheduled to continue for 10 years, and the ministry is asking for 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) in the next fiscal year budget.
The JMA, meanwhile, currently has about 160 staffers involved in volcano monitoring, but is seeking greater funding to increase that number by 83. The extra personnel would monitor volcanoes in order to issue warnings as well as be available for dispatch to volcanoes that show signs of increasing activity.
While the plans call for a sharp spike in personnel, there is the danger that staff without the required specialized knowledge could be thrown into a trial by fire.
There are currently only a small number of young researchers or those in doctoral programs studying volcanology. The plan being pushed by the science ministry does not address how to rebuild volcanology programs at the university level.
The plan to increase staff in the JMA would involve hiring more new recruits as well as transferring current staff to the volcano monitoring section.
However, the plan does not address the problem raised by volcanologists that the JMA does not have the personnel with the adequate specialized knowledge needed to interpret volcanic activity, make predictions and then understand how eruptions develop once they start.
Currently, the agency depends on outside experts for assistance in making such decisions.
The lack of expert knowledge within the JMA was one reason why the eruption warning was at the lowest level when Mount Ontakesan erupted on Sept. 27, 2014, resulting in the largest number of fatalities in the postwar era.
Toshitsugu Fujii, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who heads the government's Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, said there was a need to revise the structure at Japanese universities related to volcanic education.
"For the Japan Meteorological Agency, it will be difficult to foster the required personnel unless it allows workers to attend graduate school, rather than try to get them through internal training sessions that last for only short periods," Fujii said. "In order to overcome the short-term crisis, the only alternative will likely be to hire those who have retired from universities or the Japan Meteorological Agency and who have the ability to make the necessary judgments."