Volcano Headquarters Inaugurated: New Entity Should Serve as Command Center for Strengthening Observations

Although Japan has more volcanoes than most countries in the world, its system for observing and researching volcanoes is less developed than that for earthquakes. To improve readiness for volcano disasters, the government should strengthen cooperation with universities and local governments involved in volcano research and surveys.

The government established its headquarters for promoting volcano research this month at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. The measure is based on a revised special measures law on active volcanoes, and the headquarters will serve as a command center to oversee research and observations of volcanoes in an integrated manner.

The volcano headquarters is modeled after the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion, which was established after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. It has achieved results such as by surveying active faults throughout Japan and assessing earthquake risk. It is significant that the volcano headquarters was finally established after a delay of about 30 years.

Unlike research on earthquakes, the study of volcanoes has never been coordinated across Japan. Universities and research institutes have conducted their own research on volcanoes individually, and they submit their results to the Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, an advisory body to the director general of the Japan Meteorological Agency.

However, there are limits to the independent efforts of individual researchers. The government must take the lead in strengthening observations and research to prepare for disasters such as a Mt. Fuji eruption, which there are concerns about.

For many years, there has been a lack of researchers studying volcanoes in Japan, despite the high concentration of volcanoes on the Japanese archipelago.

Even today, there are only about 100 specialists involved in volcano observations in Japan. Moreover, more than half of them are government employees or researchers at national institutions, and only about 50 belong to universities. It can be said that there is a serious shortage of human resources in the field.

Due to reduced subsidies to national universities for operating expenses, there has been a decline in research on volcanoes for which the timing of the next eruption is unknown. If this situation continues, there will be no next generation of young researchers.

The headquarters should first secure an adequate budget for research and observations and strive to foster specialists. It is also important for local governments in regions with volcanoes to actively recruit specialist staff with backgrounds in volcano disaster preparedness.

Although there are 111 active volcanoes in Japan, they have not received enough attention due to shrinking and aging observation facilities. Sixty-three people were killed or went missing in the 2014 eruption of Mt. Ontake, and 12 people were killed or injured in the 2018 eruption of Mt. Motoshirane, which is a part of the Kusatsushirane mountains.

The revised law newly designated Aug. 26, the date when Japan’s first observatory was established at Mt. Asama, as volcano disaster preparedness day. Starting this year, evacuation drills and other activities are scheduled to be held in various locations.

It is important that the volcano headquarters take the lead in disseminating information and raising awareness to build a society that is resilient to volcanic disasters.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 9, 2024)