When Mt. Redoubt Erupts, These Scientists Are on the Job

Article excerpt

Deep in the recesses of a low-slung, cinder-block building, scientists are working around the clock to keep pace with the volcano that for weeks has wreaked havoc on air travel, oil production, and air quality.

The scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) have been on high alert since mid-January, when Mt. Redoubt started rumbling. On March 22, the 10,197-foot-tall volcano exploded with an ash cloud that spewed nearly 10 miles into the air. Since then, it has erupted about 20 times, belching plumes of gritty ash and steam and showers of rocks, and triggering vast mudslides from quick-thawed ice and snow.

Within the AVO's operations room, two banks of computer screens on the wall display seismic and meteorological data, which the scientists use to forecast future explosions and ash-fall patterns. Real-time computer images stream in from remote cameras posted on the mountain. Taped to the window are computer printouts of seismic recordings: Low-level "drumbeat" earthquakes are indicated by shaky lines; big eruptions are marked by dark blue spots where the seismic needle jerked violently. Scientists field calls from colleagues around the world, from government officials, from reporters seeking to gauge conditions, and, sometimes, from the general public.

"I got a call the other day: 'Someone was running into [a] bar and just said Redoubt exploded again!' " said AVO geologist Kate Bull.

Between explosions, scientists who work at the observatory - partly housed in a former college dorm on the tree-lined campus of Alaska Pacific University here - have been ferried via plane or helicopter to the volcano itself, to bring back ash and pumice samples for laboratory analysis, check conditions firsthand, and, if necessary, repair eruption-damaged sensors.

Overexcited bar chatter aside, the AVO's methodical work is serious business for Alaska. "Our job is to understand and warn of volcanic hazards in the state of Alaska," says John Power, a geophysicist.

People here didn't take it too kindly, therefore, when "volcano monitoring" became a political punch line in a televised speech by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. In it, the Republican governor disparaged the work of the AVO and sister agencies as unworthy of federal stimulus funding. "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.," the governor said Feb. 24.

AVO scientists have been reluctant to comment publicly on the subsequent kerfuffle, but their boss has not.

"This is an indicator and proof of the importance of earth science to the United States of America...," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared in a telephone news conference on the day after Redoubt blew. "Through the work of the USGS [US Geological Survey] and being able to monitor what was happening with the volcano ... hopefully, we will be able to prevent the endangerment of people and places...."

Alaska politicians also punched back at Governor Jindal. The state's two US senators are backing a bill that seeks not only more funding for volcano monitoring, but also an expanded system of observatories beyond the existing network in Alaska, Hawaii, the Cascade Range, and Yellowstone National Park.

Certainly, Alaskans are at no risk of suffering the fate of ancient Pompeii: Only one eruption-related fatality is on record here. But eruptions from some 40 active volcanoes here are no mere curiosities.

Redoubt's last eruptive cycle - a series of explosions, mudslides, and ash clouds that lasted from December 1989 to April 1990 - proved to be a costly event in terms of property damage. The toll was estimated at $160 million, second only to the economic damages wreaked by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State.

It could have been far worse. Redoubt nearly downed a jetliner flying through Alaskan airspace. …