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