Saturday, January 21, 2006

Augustine volcano in Alaska erupts!

On Friday, January 13, a volcano in Alaska’s Cook Inlet erupted, sending gritty, gray clouds of ash and hot gas more than six miles into the sub-zero sky. The main series of eruptions, which featured small earthquakes and rock and ash flows, continued less than an hour into Saturday morning, according to the official report from the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

A total of eight distinct eruptions have occurred since twilight Friday morning. Augustine, an uninhabited volcanic island 180 miles southwest of Anchorage, is the most active volcano in the Cook Inlet, having erupted seven times in the past 200 years. According to volcanologist Mike Doukas, who is currently stationed at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Augustine had been quiet since its last eruption, in 1986.

But about a year ago, seismic activity started to gradually increase, picking up significantly in the last two months, and the 4,134-foot volcano began to appear “restless.” On Wednesday, January 11, small earthquakes—each registering below a 1 on the Richter scale—made both Augustine’s terra infirma and the needles on the observatory’s seismographs quiver.

From that point on, it was almost assured that an eruption would occur within days. According to the Anchorage Daily News, schools in settlements on the Kenai Peninsula were closed, and some Alaskan Airlines flights were cancelled due to the quantity of airborne debris.

Thanks to the remoteness of the island, and the relatively moderate nature of the eruptions thus far, no one has been reported injured. The greatest fear is that prevailing winds, which have blown lightly in an easterly direction towards Kenai since the eruptions began, could pick up and shuttle more ashy air to populated areas. However, after Friday’s and Saturday morning’s fireworks, the rest of the weekend was quiet. “Everything’s calmed down,” Doukas said.

On Sunday, scientists downgraded the activity level from code red to code orange. Code orange indicates that seismic activity remains above normal and an eruption could occur at any time, but high-flying aircraft are not considered at risk, according to volcanologist Dave Schneider. Code red means that an eruption is in progress or could happen imminently. Despite the color-coded warnings and the apparent cessation in activity, scientists and local schoolchildren are wondering what’s still to come. Test-avoiders in the latter group, now at semester’s end, are keeping their fingers crossed. “The show’s just opened,” said Doukas.

“It’s likely that we’ll see more activity, but we just can’t tell yet. Sometimes a volcano can go ‘Pop! Fooled you,’ and other times it can erupt for weeks at a time. Whether it’s one or the other, we don’t yet know. We’re waiting and watching, just like everyone else.” In Anchorage, there's been a rush on air-filtration masks—now almost all sold out—reminiscent of the rush for survival gear on the eve of Y2K. There’s even been a run on pantyhose, which can also be used to filter air.

But in Homer, Alaska, a hundred miles closer to Augustine, where fresh snow is covered with a thin layer of ash, most hardware stores are still stocked, despite strong sales. “We saw it coming,” the proprietor of Homer Independent Hardware said. “If there’s one thing you can count on from a volcanic eruption, it’s mask sales.”

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