The BBC reported this week that an asteroid possibly as big as a 10-storey building passed within 72,000 km (44,750 miles) of the Earth on Tuesday, at 1344 hours GMT (would have been 7.44 local time for me). The asteroid, 21 to 47 metres in length (it's still hard to be sure, until we see it again), would therefore have been the same size as the object which triggered the famous Tunguska Event, now believed to have been an asteroid vapourising and then exploding above the ground in the midst of the Russian wilderness, 101 years ago. There is no doubt that had this asteroid struck a major population centre of the day (London, New York, Paris... pick a city, really), the results would have been catastrophic.
So what does this have to do with monitoring volcanoes?
Against this background, we consider the rebuttal of Louisiana Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal given to President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, in which he laid out his budget plans. One of the things that Governor Jindal targeted for derision was spending on volcano research, in these words (transcript):
"But Democratic leaders in Congress -- they rejected this approach. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history, with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government [if they're moving the government fleet to green vehicles, then it's about damn time and I have no problem at all with it], $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a "magnetic levitation" line from Las Vegas to Disneyland [this has already been debunked multiple times, look it up], and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring." [emphasis added] Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."
-- Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Republican Response to President Obama's Address, 24 February 2009
Predictably, geologists didn't look on this sort of cack-handed attempt to score cheap political points with much favour. In fact, anyone with any sense at all might have thought twice before parroting this ridiculous line. Maria Brumm over at Green Gabbro was particularly direct:
"I have two questions.
- Do Republicans (or moderates who don't have a kneejerk anti-Republican reflex) also feel like he's talking to the nation as though we were all kindergarteners? I was flabbergasted, but I don't know how to properly account for my rather strong political biases here.
- DID HE SERIOUSLY JUST SAY THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD NOT BE MONITORING VOLCANOES??!?!!!????@#$@!
Ms Brumm follows this with a further entry, The Stimulating Effect of Monitoring Volcanoes, in which she says in part:
"Volcano monitoring money will be spent directly, and swiftly, on goods and services - primarily new and upgraded monitoring equipment, and the people needed to install the equipment and interpret the data (source). We'll get a long-term economic benefit from our improved ability to forecast and mitigate eruptions, just like we would with the oft-cited infrastructure investment of a new road (albeit with slightly more uncertainty - but the expected value is positive). And because volcano hazard warnings are a public good, there is little risk of disincentivizing private industry."
But let's leave this to one side, for the moment. Let's consider the neo-Republican approach to science, as exemplified by Mr Jindal. Major threats from asteroids? Well, surely the private sector will step in there, and privatise protection services for areas that wish to be protected from rocks from space, right? Same applies to volcanoes.
Natural forces, Mr Jindal, do not respect international boundaries. Nor do they give a toss for your sound-bite politics.
Oh, and before you complain that Jindal really did no such thing as calling for the dismantling of telescopes, let me direct you to your nearest dictionary. Look up the word "hyperbole". Then "irony". And, finally, "cack-handed nitwit". Repeat as necessary.