Saturday, January 07, 2006

Volcano watch: Augustine

With less than 50 miles separating him from Augustine, Mitch Coe was concerned when he noticed an increase in steam rising from the 4,134-foot volcano Monday.

“It sure looked like it was raising hell all morning until about 11 a.m.,” Coe, the 12-year winter caretaker and general manager of Koksetna Wilderness Lodge, near Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, told the Homer News. “It seems to have settled down, but I would say (the steam) was rising 10,000 to 12,000 feet. The mountains are high on either side of me here and it looked like it was another 5,000 to 6,000 feet above that. I’m a trained weather observer with the FAA and I understand this stuff.”

Adding to Coe’s concern was a light wind that was blowing out of the southeast, potentially putting him in the path of any steam or ash that might spew from the volcano.

“One plume would go away and then, oh, maybe a half hour later, another would come up,” he said. “And these ain’t weather clouds. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to that.”

Michelle Coombs, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, had a possible explanation for Coe’s observations.

“From a seismic perspective, there was a little increase in activity last night, but it’s quiet today,” Coombs said Monday afternoon. “To our knowledge, there may be increased steaming after that little activity, but É there is nothing indicating that it will erupt in the near future.”

Augustine’s past eruptions give scientists a benchmark against which to measure the volcano’s current activity, but not enough to know exactly what it will do or when.

“Augustine is nice because it has erupted recently, 1976 and 1986, but even then, these things are so variable,” Coombs said. “When things get closer, if they do get closer, when seismic activity gets much, much stronger than it is now, then we will make more of an effort to say it might happen within 24 hours, but that’s at a much, much higher level than we see how.”

With clear weather Wednesday, scientists went by helicopter to Augustine to install more seismometers, a time-lapse camera and ash collection buckets and to do thermal imaging, said Rick Wessels, a USGS geophysicist. They hoped to also take gas measurements of the plume. High winds tend to send the plume down the flank of the volcano and over the water, making measurements difficult. Analysis is inconclusive of ash collected earlier to determine if it was recent or from earlier eruptions, Wessels said.

Augustine isn’t the first volcano with which Coe has rubbed elbows. Early on the morning of May 18, 1980, he and some friends were looking forward to spending that Sunday doing a little steelhead fishing in Washington’s Toutle River. Their plans suddenly changed when, at 8:32 a.m., Mount St. Helens violently erupted, accompanied by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale.

“We didn’t know what the hell was happening,” Coe said. “We thought it was a nuclear bomb that went off in Seattle.”

The fishing party quickly repacked everything into the three pickups in which they were traveling and began the long drive back toward the cattle ranch Coe owned.

“It took us 34 hours to drive 130 miles,” he said of delays caused by ash fall so heavy that it blocked the sun and made visibility so poor they sometimes had to walk in front of the vehicles to find the road. “We stopped in the first town we got to and bought every pair of panty hose and nylons that we could find to wrap around the air breathers and radiators.”

Once he reached home, Coe moved his cows and horses into his barn and kept them there for three days. Mount St. Helens’ eruption lasted nine hours. By the time ash stopped falling, it had reached a depth of eight to 10 inches at Coe’s ranch.

Recalling that incident, Coe said, “It wasn’t pretty.”

With one eye on his steaming neighbor, he added, “I’ve got my maps out and took some measurements. I’m about 34, 35 miles from Augustine.”

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