Sunday, October 30, 2005

Mount St.Helen seems to calm down

Mount St. Helens is still erupting — sort of — but experts say we should not expect anything as spectacular as the catastrophic May 18, 1980, explosion that blew the top of the mountain off, caused a number of fatalities, flattened thousands of acres of trees and spread fine volcanic ash over large areas of Oregon and Washington.

David Sherrod, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who operates out of the Cascade Volcano Observatory at Vancouver, Wash., spoke of the past, current and future conditions of the volcano in Portland State’s Department of Geology Wednesday.

Geologists say the grumbling mountain is going through a quarter-century eruption cycle, but its explosive energy seems to be petering out. It did go through two relatively big explosions this year, Jan. 16 and March 8.

Lately, the mountain has occasionally given off plumes from eruptive activity, mostly white steam and black dust. When they become substantial enough, the black dust can become hazardous to airplanes because it is hot enough to melt cockpit windshields.

Looking on the brighter side, Sherrod said, “How many times do you get to see an eruption in your lifetime?” He counted only four St. Helens eruptions in the last 200 years. Besides the big one in 1980, there was another major explosion March 18, 1983, so many Oregon and Washington residents could have seen two.

Since 1980, St. Helens has been intermittently active, mainly building lava domes and experiencing less disruptive events. From the big one in 1980 to 1986 geologists counted 20 magmatic, or lava, eruptions. These contributed to a growing new lava dome in the crater left by the 1980 disaster. A new glacier appeared surrounding the emerging dome.

From 1989 to 1991 the mountain experienced a large number of shallow earthquakes, leading mainly to gas and steam explosions.

Last year the mountain seemed to awaken with new threats. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 8 it became active enough to restrict access under a red alert. Lava began pushing to the surface on Oct. 11 and by Oct. 14, the crater seemed to be forming a new rim. After the first week, activity quieted down somewhat.

A huge lava dome, dubbed the whaleback, pushed up beginning Nov. 20, 2004. It rose higher than the Empire State building or the Wells Fargo bank building, tallest building in Portland. The whaleback was estimated to cover 450,000 square yards in the crater and be composed of 81 million cubic yards of magma.

After that, the mountain began forming three new domes, side by side, pushing the whaleback against the crater rim and cutting the glacier in half. Sherrod likened the upward pushing of the new domes to watermelons pushing against each other.

This year’s explosion March 8 sent a shower of big rocks up into the air.
“They were the size of Volkswagens,” Sherrod said. “But they didn’t get out of the crater.” They fell back down within the crater.

No one is hanging out in the crater these days although geologists are able with helicopters to place a variety of remote recording instruments in and near the crater
“If you’re a remote instrument in the crater, your life may be short,” Sherrod said.
As the months and years go by since the 1980 big one, geologists see the seismic energy fading. Gas emissions have been remaining low, suggesting the energy of the underlying magma is fading away.

“We don’t always know if an eruption is going on,” Sherrod explained. “We’re in a 25-year eruption cycle and we’re just getting to the end of it.”

Still no boom in volcano tourism

How do you take the largest landslide in recorded history and turn it into an eruption of money?For 25 years, people in the tourism industry have been asking that question about Mount St. Helens. They're disappointed that the volcano hasn't attracted more visitors' dollars.The big tourism magnet officials envisioned has never developed. Merchants along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway particularly lament the lack of recreation and the tourist dollars it could bring on this side of the volcano.

A turning point occurred last week, when the U.S. Forest Service announced it will accept bids for privately run operations near the peak. Some of the ideas are to allow private firms to operate the volcano visitor centers, build tourist cabins and yurts, offer helicopter tours from Johnston Ridge and rent boats on Coldwater Lake.

As someone who's covered Mount St. Helens recreation since before the eruption, I think some of the latest ideas have merit, though yurts and guided hikes wouldn't make much difference to the overall economy. But higher entrance fees for the visitor centers might deter tourists.There's no question that Mount St. Helens is a magnificent spot.

The problem from an economic point of view is that after you've gazed into the crater or hiked one of the many trails surrounding the peak, there isn't much to spend money on. The Forest Service's general attitude since 1981 has been to attract only as many people to the peak as it can manage. The original closure zone was far larger than need for safety, and the attitude persists. The feeling is understandable, considering the agency's diminishing budget.It's important to note that the Forest Service isn't offering to build anything new around the volcano now -- it can't afford to maintain what it already has. The agency is instead suggesting that private bidders use existing parking lots and centers.

A broader debate is due in 2009, when the Forest Service will revise the comprehensive management plan for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including Mount St. Helens.But for now, here are my thoughts:Too many visitor centersIn the post-eruption euphoria to build tourism facilities, no fewer than five visitor centers were built along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The Forest Service provided three, and Weyerhaeuser and Cowlitz County both built their own centers.

It was two or three more than necessary.The string of centers along the 54--mile-long highway confuses first-time visitors. They may spend too much time looking at exhibits down below, leaving little time for the actual peak experience -- including the sight of the real thing smoking away.Cowlitz County is stuck with an imposing Hoffstadt Bluffs center that can't compete with the others for views or exhibits.

Barely able to make payments on the structure, the county is trying to sell it.The Forest Service doesn't have enough money to maintain its three visitor centers and hopes someone from the private sector will step forward. But if the current $3 entry fee doesn't cover expenses, it's likely a private operator would charge more, which wouldn't do anything to lure more tourists. Next year, the entrance fee at Mount Rainier National Park will be $15 per vehicle.No rooms with viewsThe Forest Service suggests setting up yurt camps or cabins at Coldwater Ridge, Bear Meadow and the Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Yurts are wildly popular at state parks and would be here, too.Unlike other Northwest scenic wonders, Mount St. Helens has no lodge. Mount Rainier has the Paradise Inn, Mount Hood has the Timberline Lodge and the Crater Lake Lodge overlooks that beautiful lake.But the volcano isn't likely to get a lodge anytime soon.

For one thing, the area is not served with basic utilities such as water and sewer. And those lodges were built decades ago, when federal funding was easier to get.If a private investor were to offer to build a lodge near Coldwater Ridge, fine. But little new lodging has been built along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway or in Cougar in the past quarter century, an indication of how much demand there really is.Why not some campgrounds, too?The Forest Service is proposing letting a concessionaire manage RV parking in lots at its visitor centers.

But not everyone who camps has an RV, and those who do would prefer a campground to a parking lot. The closest camping to the peak on this side is at Seaquest State Park near Toutle. The Forest Service should consider building campgrounds closer to the peak, which of course would require federal funds.One possible location is on Weyerhaeuser land, the a relatively flat spot where Maratta Creek crosses Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

On the opposite side of the mountain, there are several potential camping sites in the Bean Creek drainage. The campground at Kalama Springs, wiped out by a mudflow, could be rebuilt, or another campground could be built nearby.The lure of the lakes I've hiked to the north shore of Spirit Lake several times with researchers. It's a pleasant place and not a difficult hike, but it's off-limits to the public.People within the Forest Service have suggested building a trail to the lake off the existing Truman Trail. But if it were built, people might want to catch some of those 5-pound trout swarming the waters that are now closed to fishing.

Forest Service researchers don't want people upsetting the natural recovery at the lake -- but the fish, in fact, were planted, making them not exactly natural.In any case, there's already fine fishing at Coldwater Lake, which has a boat ramp and a very impressive fish-cleaning station.The Forest Service will accept proposals to rent boats there. Coldwater Lake is a beautiful place to cruise in a battery-powered boat -- just don't forget an extra battery because it gets windy.Another idea: Crater Lake allows one eco-friendly tourism excursion boat -- perhaps a model for something here.

A research regimeOne of the reasons access is restricted around Mount St. Helens is to protect research that has been occurring since shortly after the eruption. Researchers don't want people trampling the plots that measure plant growth, or kicking over mammal traps.Though the researchers are relatively few in number, they are sometimes blamed for deterring economic development. But the real issue is the limited carrying capacity of 230 square miles of blasted landscape.Opening up more land to off-trail travel would appeal to hikers who aren't exactly saturating the backcountry now.

The vast majority of tourists want to drive to their location -- for which they already have a good network of roads. Read on....A dead-end road propositionThe Forest Service built three visitor centers in the 1980s and now cannot afford to operate them. This should be a warning to those who want to extend Spirit Lake Memorial Highway across the Spirit Lake basin --- at a cost estimated as high as $40 million.Road maintenance across the crumbly soils would be expensive. The route is right in the path of mudflows that might flow out of the crater, and the narrow, winding Forest Service roads 25 and 99 connecting from the east would need improvement.

All this for a road that would be open about six months a year because of snowfall -- if an ash cloud doesn't close it completely.If the government is going to spend millions of dollars to help the economy of counties east of the peak, a much better use for the funding would be a resort in the Randle-Packwood area, with luxurious rooms, a golf course, award-winning chef, etc. For a model, look to the Skamania Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge, with its splendid views, classy cuisine and large conference space.

That center cost $15 million in 1993, of which the federal government paid two-thirds and Skamania County paid the rest in hopes of boosting its struggling timber-dependent economy.A lodge in the upper Cowlitz River valley would be a year-round resort, serving White Pass skiers and summer hikers and golfers.Snow time for funThe Forest Service's new proposal includes yurts and guided snowmobile rides at Marble Mountain south of the peak. Those are good ideas. But the parking lot there is already so crowded that it's hard to find a space on sunny winter weekends.

The ideal layout would be like the one on the upper Wind River Highway, where snowmobilers and skiers have completely separate areas.Snowplay opportunities along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway are sporadic and the Forest Service hasn't publicized them. Most years, skiers and snowshoers can have a fine outing from the Coldwater Ridge area to higher country to the north. Of course, that's on Weyerhaeuser land, where snowmobiles are prohibited.

A better look at lavaThe terrain just to the west of the crater isn't particularly steep, and a hiking route could be marked there with posts, as it is on the climbing route on the volcano's south flank.If the mountain stays in its current stable eruptive phase, such a hike wouldn't be any riskier than what the Forest Service permits elsewhere. The agency allows climbing on Mount Adams and Mount Hood, which are much steeper.

Five people have died hiking Lava Canyon south of St. Helens, but the trail -- with warning signs -- remains open.Weyerhaeuser landsWeyerhaeuser eventually comes up in discussions of expanding volcano tourism in Cowlitz County, because the company owns so much of the land between I-5 and the peak.One of the ideas that makes the most sense is for the Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources to negotiate easements on Weyerhaeuser roads so people can drive to public land that was often accessible before the company restricted motorized vehicles.

Wait another half-century or two?It's tempting to draw comparisons between Mount St. Helens and other Northwest mountains that have more tourist resources, but may be too soon -- by about 100 years.Yes, Mounts Rainier and Hood have nice lodges on their flanks, and Hood has a couple of ski areas, but those peaks have not had major eruptions in living memory.Nature has a different time schedule than do entrepreneurs. Mount St. Helens is still young, active, fragile, and dangerous at times. Like its recovery, building up tourist development will take time.

Saturn's moon being discovered

Previous passes of Saturn's moon Titan by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft have shown tantalizing signs of riverbeds carved by rain, but the only direct observation came last year as the Huygens probe descended to the moon's surface.

During a flyby slated for early Friday, scientists hope to learn enough to prove what lies beneath Titan's hazy skies.

Cassini's radar instruments will be aimed at the Huygen's landing site, giving researchers their first opportunity to compare the visual images with what the features look like in radar.

By extrapolating that data to other radar studies, the team hopes to verify that other locations on Titan have been marked by rainfall.

"The last data we got are really suggestive that there are these channels that you expect to have been formed by rain," said Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, a planetary scientist and the Cassini science team manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "If we can prove that, it would be really cool."

During Cassini's last pass by Titan, only a fraction of the radar studies were recovered due to problems with a tape recorder onboard the spacecraft, as well as a communications glitch with NASA's Deep Space Network.

Even so, scientists found what they believe to be shorelines and channels marking the southern polar region of Titan.

Several factors affect how scientists interpret the radar imagery, such as how much light is reflected from the ground, the magnetic and electric properties of the atmosphere and whether the surface is rock, ice or slush.

During Friday's pass, scientists for the first time will be able to compare the radar images with what optical instruments on Huygens found.

"This pass is really pretty important because it's going to provide us with a ground-truth," said Hansen-Koharcheck.

Only one other pass by the Hugens landing site is planned during Cassini's prime mission. The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn and studying its moons and rings since July 2004.
So far, the Cassini science team has used the spacecraft's radar instrument during three previous flybys of the planet's largest moon, Titan, the only moon in the solar system that has a thick atmosphere.

With its thick brew of organic matter, Titan is believed to resemble primordial Earth.
The earlier radar passes showed a variety of geologic features including impact craters, wind-blown deposits, channels and signs of ice volcano eruptions.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Third day of Galapagos volcano eruption

A volcano on the largest of the Galapagos Islands erupted for the third straight day Tuesday, but experts said it didn't threaten villagers on the island or the super-sized tortoises that gave the remote archipelago its name.

Oscar Carvajal, chief technician of the Galapagos National Park on Isabela island, said tortoises and land iguanas were not threatened because the lava flows were down the northeast slopes of Sierra Negra volcano where there were no animal populations.

"The lava flows have not affected the species because they are on the other side. There are no problems with tortoises or land iguanas. Only a small amount of vegetation has been burned in the interior of the caldron and on the flanks," Carvajal said.

The 4,920-foot high Sierra Negra volcano began erupting late Saturday, sending three rivers of spectacular lava flow down its northeastern slopes.

Carvajal said the lava expelled Tuesday was considerably less. He said most of the lava was flowing from a fissure at the top of the volcano back into the interior.

Park and local authorities say Puerto Villamil, the island's only village with 2,000 inhabitants, is also out of danger because it is located south of the volcano.

Puerto Villamil mayor Pablo Gordillo said authorities have taken precautions and were ready to evacuate people by sea and air if necessary.

Patricio Roman, a technician at Ecuador's Geophysics Institute, said the eruption of Sierra Negra was a normal process for islands that are of volcanic origin. He said the archipelago, made up of 13 islands, only four of which have human inhabitants, is still young enough in geological terms to be in a process of formation.

"Sierra Negra volcano is very active, one of the most active volcanos in the Galapagos, and the Galapagos are considered one of the most active volcano centers in the world," he said.
"The Galapagos Islands are what geologists know as a hot point, a point that draws magma from the depths," he said.

Sierra Negra last erupted in 1979, but in May of this year La Cumbre volcano on nearby Fernandina island, which is uninhabited, erupted with water vapor, gas and ash. Another volcano on Isabela, Cerro Azul, erupted in 1998.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Volcano eruption, more than overdue

Researchers have uncovered evidence suggesting Mt Taranaki is overdue to erupt, possibly blanketing much of the North Island in ash and disrupting power and water supplies, farming and aviation.Although the 2518m volcano, New Zealand’s second-highest, has shown little or no sign of activity for two centuries, the new research suggests it has erupted at least once every 90 years on average for the past 9000 years, with a major eruption every 500 years.

This is far greater frequency than previous realised.The study, by Dr Shane Cronin of the Institute of Natural Resources at Massey and PhD student Michael Turner, is part of a larger programme into North Island volcanic risk funded by the Public Good Science Fund of the New Zealand Foundation for Science and Technology.It involved extraction and analysis of a series of cores from the sediments of Lake Umutekai, 5km east of New Plymouth and about 25km north-east of the volcano.

Dr Cronin said the rapidly accumulating organic sediments within the lake were perfect for trapping ash layers from Mt Taranaki.They collected the cores earlier this year and were astonished to find almost 100 ash layers revealed in them.By using several radiocarbon dates throughout the core, they were able to reconstruct the most detailed view ever of the eruption history of the mountain.“These events have been as frequent as large-scale floods in many rivers of New Zealand and future activity from this volcano may pose a more immediate threat to the North Island that previously realised,” he said.

Each of the volcanic ash layers in the core are from millimetres to several-centimetres thick. The smaller units represent eruption magnitudes similar to the 1995-1996 Mt Ruapehu events, while the larger units represent eruptions on the scale of the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption.The Umutekai record also suggests that there is a larger eruption approximately every 500 years, the last occurred in 1655.

These eruptions are large enough to shower New Plymouth with pumice and rock fragments the size of raisins, producing a deposit up to tens of centimetres thick.“An eruption of this scale would undoubtedly cause substantial disruption to much of the North Island, cutting power supplies, damaging transmission lines, water supplies and stormwater.”The bulk of the ash cloud would disrupt all main North Island airline flight paths and the prevailing south-westerly wind would the cloud directly over Auckland, closing the country’s largest international airport.

Fragments from previous Taranaki eruptions have been found in lakes near Te Awamutu in the Waikato and Tutira, Hawke’s Bay.In addition there could be severe problems for farmers, particularly dairy and horticulture, with ash damage to pasture, crops and orchards and ash blocking air filters on milking shed cooling plants, limiting farmers’ ability to store milk. Twenty per cent of New Zealand’s dairy cattle are farmed in the Taranaki region.

Dr Cronin said at this stage there was nothing more than the statistical evidence to suggest an eruption was imminent. The mountain is monitored by six seismometers owned by the Taranaki Regional Council and managed by GeoNet, part of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.The monitoring should give at least six days’ and possibly as much as a few months’ warning of an eruption.Dr Cronin said when statistics were vital to vulcanology.“ With volcanic activity, the past is the key to the future.

If you consider Taranaki has been active for 130,000 years, just because it’s been quiet for the last 200 years doesn’t mean it has stopped.”“Normally evidence for these types of eruptions cannot be found within soils, so they have been overlooked in past studies on the volcano.More concerning than the frequency of these eruptions, is that they have often occurred in swarms – semi-continuous eruptions over many years. The last, recorded in 1755 but possibly followed up with a further eruption in the early 1800s, formed the present cone on Taranaki.

A similar volcano-type, Soufrière Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean, shows a present-day example of this type of activity, since it has been continually erupting for the past decade.These new results show only the eruptions of Mt Taranaki during south-westerly winds, indicating the average frequency of eruptions may be even higher than one every 90 years.

Mr Turner, Dr Cronin and colleagues at Massey University will continue collecting new cores from swamps and lakes in other areas around Mt Taranaki to ultimately come up with the most detailed record possible of the volcano’s history. These data are to be used to develop probability models in order to forecast the chances of future events and help authorities and businesses to plan for the next one.

Still home...

"STILL home, still nice" is no catchy tourism slogan, but for the people of Montserrat, who have faced a trifecta of natural disasters in the past 16 years, it has become a sobering maxim to live by.

Hurricane Hugo came first, hitting the island, a British overseas territory in the West Indies, with fury in 1989. Then, the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in 1995 and delivered the final blow two years later when it covered the capital, Plymouth, in up to 20 feet of ash and rock, forcing the government to proclaim the city and the southern two-thirds of the 40-square-mile island uninhabitable.

Two-thirds of the 12,000 inhabitants fled to find new homes abroad after the eruptions, and tourism left with them. Yet today, Monserrat's 13-square-mile "safe zone" - beyond the threatening grips of the volcano - is on the rebound. With British support, the $18.5 million Gerald's Airport opened in July with at least four daily flights from neighboring Antigua on a 19-seat twin-engine turboprop. Plans for a new capital city and a nine-hole golf course are in the works, and construction continues to rebuild the tourist infrastructure.

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory, in Flemings,
serves as the hub for investigating the still-fuming dome, with a veranda looking out at the 3,000-foot monster and its plume, best seen on a clear day. Resident volcanologists lead hourlong tours of the observatory at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday for $4 , and a larger interpretive center with photos, videos and models will open in the coming months. To get a closer look at the destruction, call police headquarters in the commercial center, Brades, (664) 491-2555, to arrange an escorted tour of the abandoned streets of Plymouth, billed as a present-day Pompeii, for around $55. Only a church steeple and the roofs of homes break above the solidified ash in one part of town; in another, sneakers line the racks of a shoe store as if customers will return tomorrow.

First inhabited by former Irish indentured servants in the mid-17th century, Montserrat conjures images of the other Emerald Isle thanks to 50 to 80 inches of annual rainfall, and a number of hiking paths criss-cross the lush, mountainous interior.

The Oriole Walkway is a popular route, meandering through three miles of rain forest full of darting black and yellow orioles. To avoid getting lost and to learn about the kaleidoscope of flora and fauna, book a guide through the Montserrat National Trust Olveston, (664) 491-3086, for $20 an hour.

Just off the handful of pearl gray beaches of the northwest coast is prime snorkeling and diving ground where green turtles and southern stingrays swim in the year-round 80-degree waters. Before the destruction, Montserrat had developed a niche as a haven for jet-setters and rockers like Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney with its get-away-from-it-all atmosphere.

Even with all of the rebuilding and limited space within the Safe Zone, the island maintains the same persona. There are no stoplights and just one ATM, and traffic jams are limited to herds of goats roaming freely. Open-air restaurants - like Jumping Jack's in Olveston, (664) 491-5645, where grilled wahoo and tuna snapper make regular menu appearances - dot the string of villages on the west coast.

Next door, the Vue Pointe Hotel,
has 18 rooms and is one of only two hotels on the island. It has views of the volcano from each self-contained cottage starting at $100 (double occupancy). A number of guesthouses and private villas are returning to the rental pool as well.
"It feels kind of like small town U.S.A.," said Betty Dix, who visited from
Chicago in 1978 and never left. That sense of place comes with a view of the Caribbean framed by mango and palm trees. It's what made Montserrat famous before the destruction, and as the locals like to say, it's "still nice" today.

Experts keep a watchful eye on volcano

Volcano experts in Papua New Guinea's West New Britain province are keeping a careful watch on Mount Garbuna after its sudden eruption early this week.The volcano had been dormant for almost two-thousand years before it began spewing ash, lava and steam and affecting the nearby Garu village last weekend.

Drinking wells in the area have been contaminated by the ash and locals say dead fish and eels have surfaced in the nearby streams.A member of the provincial disaster committee Steve Saunders says monitoring equipment has now been installed at the site. Although there are earthquake related events being recorded by the seizmonitors they are quite small and far between, he says.

So at the moment obviously there is a cause for concern and constant vigilance we've now got to keep an eye on it, but its current state of eruptive activity is very small and minor and doesn't really pose a threat at the moment, he says.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Papua New Guinea is on alert

In Papua New Guinea, volcano experts are closely monitoring the sudden eruption of a dormant volcano in the West New Britain province.

Mount Garbuna erupted on Sunday spewing fine ash and lava and threatening more than 20,000 local residents close to the volcano.

Local provincial authorities say people are taking all the necessary precautions and are prepared for evacuation if the volcanic eruptions get bigger.

District officer, Gawaga Ewabo, says there have been no reports of deaths or property damage.
He says Mt Garbuna is one of the province's seven active volcanoes located along the Pacific's active chain of volcanoes, known as the ring of fire.

Mr Ewabo says eruptions have intensified since Sunday sending fine ash into the nearby villages' water wells and there are fears drinking water may have been contaminated by sulphuric acid.
Our reporter in PNG, Firmin Nanol, says senior volcanologists have arrived in the West New Britain town of Kimbes to install monitoring equipment at the site.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Venus...from A to Z

A is for atmosphere, which on Venus is a dense, suffocating mix of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulphuric acid. Atmospheric pressure on Venus is 90 times greater than on Earth. The Venusian air is hot, acrid and gloomy. Hidden under this thick blanket of gas is a rocky landscape shaped and moulded by volcanic activity spewing out sulphur gases.

B is for burn-up. The thick atmosphere on Venus ensures that small objects and meteors from space burn up quickly so that nothing very small manages to hit the Venusian ground - which is why only big impact craters exist on Venus. The planet has the hottest surface of any in the solar system, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead.

C is for craters because the surface of Venus is littered with them. Astronomers have so far identified some 900 impact craters ranging in size from 1.5km to 280km in diameter. Most of them appear as pristine as the day they were formed, with sharply defined edges surrounded by ejected material.

D is for distance of the Earth from the Sun. Early astronomers estimated the distance between the Earth and the Sun by carefully observing the movement or "transit" of Venus across the solar disc and by measuring a feature known as the solar parallax.

E is for express. The next space probe to be sent to the planet is the Venus Express, modelled on the successful Mars Express mission carried out by the European Space Agency, pictured above. Its launch is scheduled for 26 October and the probe should arrive at Venus next April.

F is for fantasy. Like other planets that were visible to ancient eyes, Venus attracted its own fan club of astrologers and mystics. The Greeks called it Aphrodite - although they originally thought it was two stars, a morning one and an evening one. The Babylonians named it Ishtar. Astrologers today continue to attribute all kinds of fantasy to the influence of Venus.

G is for greenhouse effect. Venus suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect with a very dense atmosphere which traps most of the sunlight that is reflected from its surface. Average temperatures on Venus hover around 464C, about 400C higher than they would be if the planet lacked an atmosphere that creates such a strong greenhouse effect.

H is for highlands. Venus has some impressive volcanic mountains such as the highland region of Aphrodite Terra which includes the volcano of Maat Mons, pictured below, which rises 9km from the surrounding landscape and measures 200km across.

I is for inferior planet because Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth. When Venus is at its inferior conjunction it lies directly between the Earth and the Sun and its position is lost to the glare of our own star. At the point in its orbit known as its eastern elongation Venus is visible in the east after sunset, at its western elongation it is visible in the west before sunrise.

J is for Jeremiah. The transit of Venus - when the planet passes in front of the Sun and becomes visible as a small black dot - was first predicted and recorded by Jeremiah Horrocks, on 24 November 1639. He died two years later aged 22 before his observation was published.

K is for Kepler, the great German astronomer. Although Horrocks was the first to witness a transit of Venus it was Johannes Kepler who first made the mathematical calculations to predict one. Unfortunately Kepler did not live long enough to see his prediction come true. He died in 1630.

L is for love. Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty, pictured top left, probably because it was the brightest planetary object that could be seen with the naked eye. Nudity was the natural state of Venus and it became socially acceptable for artists throughout history to depict her as the erotic goddess of sexual healing. If men were from Mars, then women were definitely Venusians.

M is for moons, or rather lack of them. Venus is a planet with no natural satellites. M is also for Nasa's Mariner 2, which in 1962 was the first space probe to pass close to Venus. The mission found carbon dioxide in the planet's atmosphere. M is also for the Mekon, the Venusian arch enemy of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

N is for names. Many of the features of Venus are named after famous women, from Eve to Cleopatra, pictured top right. It is also a girl's name, one famous example being the tennis player Venus Williams.

O is for the circular orbit of Venus around the Sun. Most of the other planets follow elliptical orbits but the track of Venus as it passes around its star forms an almost perfect "O" with an anomaly of just 1 per cent.

P is for plains. Vast areas of Venus - about 75 per cent of its surface - are covered by flat plains formed by volcanic activity. One of the main plains on the planet is Lavinia Planitia which, like many of the flat areas of Venus, is pock-marked by volcanic eruptions or impact craters formed by collisions with meteors.

Q is for queen of the evening and morning sky. Venus has phases like the Moon, which means that we see differing amounts of its sunlit side depending on where it is in relation to the Sun and the Earth. We never see the full Venus when the whole of the sunlit side points towards Earth because it becomes obscured by the Sun.

R is for rocky planet. Like the Earth, Venus is composed of a sphere of rock. Some planets, such Jupiter, are composed of gas and are unsuitable for life. R is also for radar mapping, the method used by the American Magellan and Russian Venera probes to map the surface of Venus.

S is for second planet from the Sun. Venus is about 30 per cent closer to the Sun than the Earth. Only Mercury orbits nearer to our fiery star. Venus's other neighbour is Earth, the third rock from the Sun. S is also for spin because Venus spins slowly in the opposite direction to most other planets with one Venusian day lasting 243 Earth days.

T is for twin of Earth because of its similar size, mass, density and volume. If Venus had started out a little further from the Sun it might have formed oceans of water where life could have evolved and be a true twin of Earth. But the extra heat generated by the planet's position meant that any water on the planet boiled off and ended up as water vapour in the atmosphere.

U is for ultraviolet, the wavelength of light used by the Pioneer space probe to take some of the first stunning images of the planet. The pictures showed the cloud patterns at the top of the Venusian atmosphere which helped scientists to understand its composition.

V is for volcanoes which dominate the Venusian landscape. Lava flows and craters are seen all over the planet which is pockmarked by volcanic activity arising from some 156 large volcanoes measuring more than 100 km across. Venus has another 300 "smaller" volcanoes between 20km and 100 km in diameter. Whether these volcanoes are still active is an unsolved mystery.

W is for weather. Hot gases on Venus spiral up from the equator to the polar regions, moving the thick clouds of sulphuric acid around the planet. Heat from the Sun drives the hot, superfast winds, moving gases to high altitudes as well as towards the cooler poles, where the gases lose heat and sink back towards the equator.

X is for the X-rays emitted by Venus. The Chandra space telescope first captured an image of these rays in 2001. The X-rays from Venus are not reflected but are produced by fluorescence. Radiation from the Sun knocks electrons from the gases in its atmosphere causing the atoms to emit fluorescent radiation in the form of X-rays - much like how a strip light works.

Y is for the Y-shaped clouds of sulphuric acid photographed by the Hubble space telescope in 1995. They were also seen by the Pioneer Venus, Galileo and Mariner 10 space probes. The unusual cloud formation near the equator, where swirls of vapour converge like two tributaries joining a river, could indicate the presence of atmospheric waves similar to the high and low-pressure weather systems seen on Earth.

Z is for Zontar: Thing from Venus, probably the worst sci-fi movie ever. Plot involves a small town invaded by Venusian aliens with weird eyes. The DVD is going cheap on E-bay.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Three of the several volcanoes in Alaska show signs of activity

Anchorage residents could see a cloud of steam over the weekend from a volcano 75 miles away -- one of three Alaska volcanoes showing signs of unrest.

The three volcanoes, including two located on remote Aleutian islands distant from any population centers, are setting off frequent tremors and minor bursts of ash or steam, seismologists said on Tuesday.

Cleveland Volcano, 900 miles southwest of Anchorage, had a small eruption on Friday, said the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which monitors Alaska's more than 40 active volcanoes.
Its ash plume rose to a height of nearly 15,000 feet (4.6 km) above sea level, observatory scientists said.

A cloud of steam from the 11,070-foot (3,400-m) Mount Spurr was visible from Anchorage over the weekend.

The volcano has had periodic but minor ash emissions and some debris flow caused by melted snow, said Dave Schneider, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist and acting scientist-in-charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Ash emissions "are a lot easier to see now than they were in the summer because you have fresh snow," Schneider said.

Cleveland Volcano, which comprises the western half of uninhabited Chuginadak Island, last erupted in 2001. The closest community, 45 miles to the east, is Nikolski, an Aleut village of 36 people.

The other volcano showing unrest is 5,925-foot (1,800-m) Tanaga Volcano.
A series of eruptions in 1992 showered Anchorage and the surrounding region with ash, forcing a brief closure of Anchorage International Airport.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Iceland, the only place to win the war againts the volcano eruption

There is to the southeast of Reykjavic a group of Icelandic islands called the Westmans.
There is one largish island, Heimaey, and 14 smaller ones — if they have grass, we were told, they are called islands, and people stick a few sheep on them to graze. If there is no grass, they are called rocks.

On the largest island is one town, Vestmannaeyjar, and one port which is a most important site in Iceland's critical fishing industry. This town has gained the distinction of being the only place in the world ever to successfully deflect a volcano.

All of Iceland is volcanic, and the main island, roughly the size of Virginia, is about 40 percent a desert of mossy lava fields. (I had to learn a whole new definition of the word "desert," as clearly there was no sand involved here.)

There are volcanic eruptions every four years or so, along with earthquakes, and the residents pretty much take them in stride.

But early on the morning of Jan. 23, 1973, all hell literally broke loose on Heimaey. A vast fissure split open on the eastern side of the island only 400 yards from the town, and a 350-foot volcano cone began to form, shooting tephra, or molten bombs, as it grew.

The people were awakened by police and fire sirens, and they fled to the harbor where they were safely evacuated on fishing boats. There were no casualties at that time.

The volcano continued to do its cruel thing, and by March the people realized their precious harbor was threatened by the flowing lava. This could not be allowed, as then the town would have no reason for existence, and the people were having none of that. This was home.

So they came up with the idea of pumping sea water on the steaming lava, supported by workers and equipment from other nations around the world. It wasn't easy, and they lost a few battles, but eventually they won the war.

And they not only saved the harbor, but found it improved. A sizable land mass was added to the island by the time the volcano finally spewed itself out in July, and it provided welcome shelter from prevailing winds.

The destruction, though, was horrific. Hundreds of homes were burned by molten lava and buried under ash. You can still see an odd chimney or gable sticking out of new mountains here and there.
The population was for the most part resolved, calm, and philosophical. Two thousand returned to the island as soon as it was safe, and others following in time.

The mayor, once he knew the harbor was saved, said they would just wait until the lava cooled and then build on top of it. And that's what they did.

Our cruise ship pulled into Heimaey Harbor early one August morning. We were taken on a bus tour of the island, and it began in a rather dramatic way.

People gather puffin eggs, despite the fact that the birds nest in formidable cliffs. So egg gatherers learn to swing on ropes, grab the eggs with one hand, and swing back to safety. Our bus driver was expert at this, as he proceeded to demonstrate on a "practice" cliff. We were impressed.
Then we went to a puffin nesting site, being forewarned that the grass leading to the cliff edge could be slippery. (He neglected to mention the vast piles of sheep plop we would encounter, but we soon figured that out by ourselves.)

There are some six million puffins in the Westmans, living on the average of 25 years. They arrive on Heimaey every April 15 and stay just long enough to raise a family, leaving in mid-August. (I don't know Icelanders do for eggs the rest of the year — I saw no chickens.)

The babies, called puffings, are quite simply abandoned by their parents, who clearly feel their work is done. The babies then get hungry and eventually head for the sea, where they're just fine.
But if they get distracted by lights and land in the town, they're hopelessly befuddled. So people traditionally stay up nights during this time rescuing puffings in cardboard boxes; in the mornings they take them to the sea and release them.

Icelanders eat puffins, and controlled hunting with long-handled nets — no guns — is allowed for a few summer weeks. The hunter must catch the birds in flight, but only returning to the cliffs, not leaving them. And if the puffins have food in their mouths, they must be freed, because that means they are feeding young.

I do admire a place that is so bird-sensitive, even if they do eat them.

Vestmannaeyjar is now a thriving town of 4,200 — they'd like another thousand or so to regain the pre-eruption population size. Fishing is still important, although imposed quotas have had an effect.

They have several local celebrations, such as Twelfth Night, the Puffin Ball and "The Festival," an annual entertainment and musical extravaganza.

There is adequate shopping (except for tourists; they are sadly lacking in acceptable souvenirs), an airport and a golf course, home of the popular Volcano Open.

They even have a downtown traffic light, although the residents don't really understand it and tend to avoid that street.

Mesmerizing place. Incredible people. Extraordinary experience.

Friday, October 07, 2005

People told to flee volcanic activity

Authorities in north-eastern Ethiopia have advised 50 000 people to evacuate from a remote region following a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, an official said on Wednesday.The evacuation advice was given in the Afar region after a September 24 earthquake triggered an eruption of the previously dormant Mount Arteala.

Another quake measuring 4,2 on the Richter scale struck on Tuesday, leading to another eruption, said Manahlo Belachew, from the seismology department of Addis Ababa University.A thick layer of ash that has spewed from the volcano has covered grazing grounds, preventing nomadic cattle herders from feeding their livestock. Several hundred cattle have already died in the region, which borders Eritrea and Djibouti."We were also told that earthquakes have so far damaged roads in the region's Teru and Dubti districts, making transportation difficult in a region largely inhabited by salt-mining Afar pastoralists," Belachew said.

Afar authorities have advised the 50 000 people living in the stricken area to travel 400km south of the region to save their lives and cattle, Belachew said.Officials have had trouble getting information from the region because of its remote location. Belachew said earthquakes are also expected to hit other Ethiopian towns on the Great Rift Valley -- a geologic depression that runs from the Jordan River valley in south-west Asia to Mozambique in East Africa. The Rift Valley was formed by the movement of tectonic plates and is highly susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

People fleeing El Salvador's volcano eruption

El Salvador’s largest volcano erupted for the first time in a century on Saturday, killing two people and forcing thousands to flee their homes.The Ilamatepec volcano, also known as Santa Ana, hurled out hot rocks, ash and boiling water on Saturday morning and a massive plume of smoke rose more than 10 miles (16km) into the air.

Two people were killed under a landslide caused by the volcano’s eruption in the small community of Palo Campana, near the crater, the government said.A few homes were destroyed. “I have lost everything. I have no money, nothing, just my children and my husband,” said 73-year-old Rosa Flores, whose small home was set ablaze by a red-hot rock as she made breakfast.A 12-year-old boy, Fernando Gonzalez, was desperately looking for his parents.

“I’m scared. I saw big stones fall and one had smoke coming from it.”El Salvador’s government declared a red alert and evacuated more than 4,000 people by late afternoon with 3,000 more expected to be moved out.“The important thing is to save people, that is the first phase of this emergency,” President Tony Saca told reporters.Ilamatepec is the largest of El Salvador’s 23 volcanoes and stands 7,800ft (2,380m) above sea level in a major coffee-growing area about 60km west of the capital.

Its last eruption was in 1904 but it has been increasingly active since last year.The volcano has been rumbling since mid-August, but had been quiet since Thursday, said Elda Godoy with the government office that monitors seismic and volcanic activity. She described Saturday’s eruption as “abrupt.”Similar eruptions could occur in the next days or weeks, Godoy said, warning of possible landslides due to the weak rain-soaked ground.

Homes and vehicles were covered in a thick layer of ash, and some of the area’s coffee plantations were damaged.“Many trees have been burned, for sure,” said Sergio Gil, who leads the Procafe coffee institute. “It is a delicate situation, the ashes have reached as far as Apaneca, about 25km from the crater.”

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

San Salvador eruption killed two people

A volcano erupted in El Salvador killing at least two people and forcing thousands to flee their homes, La Prensa Grafica newspaper reported online Sunday.

The two confirmed victims were killed in a landslide triggered when Ilamatepec -- the nation's highest volcano, located some 40 miles west of the capital -- erupted on Saturday.
The last recorded eruption of Ilamatepec occurred in 1904, but the cone has been increasingly active in the last year, said scientists.

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