Monday, December 26, 2005

Scientists take a peek inside Augustine volcano

For the first time since the Augustine Volcano came rumbling back to life last month, scientists have flown a heat-sensitive camera over its summit. That camera shows steam jets spewing out the top of Augustine. Now the new photographs have scientists keeping a close eye on the mountain.

Despite the ominous appearance of the pictures, Augustine is in no imminent danger of erupting. The mountain is still code yellow, which categorizes it as restless. An infrared camera took dramatic pictures of the Augustine Volcano Saturday. It was attached to a helicopter in Homer.

“Yeah, this is a thermal infrared camera that’s thermal infrared here and also a regular digital video camera,” said Dr. Dave Schneider, a volcanologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

The cameras are meant to provide valuable data on what's going on inside Augustine Volcano, but it's got one problem: the system needs good weather to work. For most of this week, flights that went to the volcano came back empty-handed.

Then yesterday, the clouds broke and scientists were able to get in the air and shoot stunning images of a smoldering Augustine. Schnieder says the pictures show a previously unknown feature on the summit -- a smoldering fumarole, or steam vent. It is venting steam at tremendous pressure. The infrared images show the actual temperature of that fumarole.

“The hottest temperatures we got were in this new fumarole on the south side of the volcano, with the temperatures in excess of 400 degrees Fahrenheit,” Schnieder said.

Dr. John Power, a seismologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, says the hot steam plumes, combined with the sharp increase in earthquake activity, makes scientists think could be coming back to life.

“The present level of activity that we’re seeing is the highest that we've seen since 1986 -- the last eruption,” Power said.

“On Augustine, however, the pattern’s been that profuse steaming like this typically has preceded eruptions -- the last two eruptions, for sure,” Schnieder said.

Scientists emphasize that while Augustine is more active now than at any time since its last eruption, in 1986, it is not yet close to an eruption. There would need to be a 10-fold increase in seismic activity for officials to raise the danger level to Code Orange.

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