AK volcano eruptions continue

Scientists say the alert for southern Alaska's Augustine Volcano will remain at the second highest level after a week of eruptions.


Scientists say the alert for southern Alaska's Augustine Volcano will remain at the second highest level after a week of eruptions.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory's (AVO) code red level means that that "volcano is in eruption or eruption may occur at any time." While the Augustine Volcano sits on an uninhabited island, there are numerous communities around the Cook Inlet area. Several eruptions in the past week - including a large one on Tuesday - sent clouds of ash up to eight miles into the air, prompting ash fall warnings for nearby communities.

Scientists and weather forecasters urged people to stay inside due to the risks of the ash fall, yet aircraft may be at the most risk from ash.

"An ash explosion sends what are basically small pieces of glass up to about 30,000 feet within six seconds," said Stephanie Hanna, spokesperson for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). "An airplane jet engine that sucks in this ash will fail. There are about 10,000 people each day that cross through that circum-polar airplane route."

Many airlines have suspended flights through the region over the past week due to just that hazard.

The ash can also pose a respiratory risk to humans and animals. According to reports on the USGS website, ash can cause eye and skin irritation as well. Heavy ash fall can also cause roof collapses.

The health risks are one issue, but Hanna said the ash fall is much more destructive economically. "Car engines and other engines are at risk - you can wear a dust mask, but your car can't."

Ash can also cause adverse driving conditions, with low visibility and slippery roads. After the past week of eruptions at Augustine, no heavy ash falls have been reported in the nearby communities, but the AVO is still seeking ash fall reports from the public.

For cities that sit in the shadow of volcanoes, the preparation for eruptions really depends on what kind of volcano is nearby. "Cities near volcanoes are aware of ash problems, but of course each volcano also has a different eruptive history," explained Hanna. "You have to know your volcano and be prepared based on that. That's what the USGS tries to do - help cities and people know their volcano and know its points of risks, be it sudden gas explosions or ash clogging airplane engines."

As population in at-risk cities increases, said Hanna, it's important for the USGS to help officials asses the risks and mitigate possible losses to nearby cities. Also, she said, ash fall can affect far away cities, too, depending on air direction.

"The population of Cook Inlet has increased a lot in the past. People are at risk depending on air direction, even Anchorage in this case."

Augustine Volcano's last eruption was in 1986. The AVO reports that small steam eruptions have been happening on Augustine since December, but seismic activity conducive to an eruption only started in the past week.

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