Saturday, March 18, 2006

Lack of monitoring of Alaskan volcanoes could threatens traveller's safety

Nineteen volcanoes in Alaska and the Northern Mariana Islands that seriously threaten aviation are not monitored by ground sensors able to communicate in real time, according to the federal government's top volcano hazard warning official.

Without such ground-based monitoring, confirmation of an eruption can take hours, according to James Quick of the U.S. Geological Survey, who testified before a panel of the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday. A delay of hours could be fatal when jets filled with people travel the skies at eight miles per minute, he said.

Such monitoring requires money, however.

John Eichelberger, a University of Alaska Fairbanks volcanology professor, told the committee, "adequate funding" is "the immediate challenge" for the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The observatory, where Eichelberger serves as coordinating scientist, monitors 30 volcanoes along Alaska's gulf coast and the Aleutian Islands.

The observatory needs a modest increase in funding, Eichelberger said, but just as necessary is a more stable funding system.

Congress sends about half the observatory's money to the Federal Aviation Administration, which sends it to the Department of Commerce, which sends it to the U.S. Geological Survey, Eichelberger said.

"This cumbersome process precludes long-term planning," he said.

In the current fiscal year, the observatory received $4.4 million through the U.S. Geological Survey's Volcano Hazards Program, as requested by the Bush administration. But that money can't be spent to deal with threats solely to aviation, Eichelberger said.

So Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, added another $3 million as an earmark to deal with ash hazards to aircraft. That's the money that went through the FAA first.

Stevens, chairman of the Commerce Committee, observed that Alaskans are dealing with a volcanic hazard right now.

"Over half the population of Alaska lies within 200 miles of Augustine (Volcano)," Stevens said Thursday. "And two months ago, it spewed ash throughout Southcentral Alaska, shutting down airports throughout the area."

This week, scientists said the volcano began oozing lava, although it showed fewer signs of explosive activity than it did in January.

At Thursday's hearing, Eichelberger, Quick and Terry McVenes, air safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, all described past encounters between jets and volcanic ash:

* In 1982, a Boeing 747 with 240 passengers hit an ash cloud over Indonesia. All four engines quit and it fell from 37,000 feet to 12,000 feet before the crew restarted three engines and landed safely in Jakarta.

* Weeks later in the same area, another 747 experienced a nearly identical problem, though one engine stayed on and the crew was able to start another. It landed on two engines.

* In 1989, another 747 hit an ash cloud from Redoubt Volcano near Anchorage. It lost all power and electronics. Again, the crew was able to restart the engines and land.

Volcanic ash is not like wood or paper ash, Quick said. It's sand, silt and glass. When this type of ash enters a jet engine, some of it melts, but the melted material then solidifies on cooler parts of the engine, causing them to fail.

The grit also abrades turbine engine fans, windscreens and the fuselage. And it can short out electronic gear.

With improved warning systems, Quick said, ash hasn't caused an engine failure on a multi-engine aircraft since 1991.

The risk is still high over the Aleutians, though, he said.

"More than 200 flights carry roughly 25,000 people over northern Pacific air routes on a daily basis," he said in written testimony.

Eichelberger said the Aleutian chain may seem remote to most people, but it is not to international aviators.

"A remote place is far from home and usually at the corner of a map," he said. "But Earth does not have corners. It surprises people to discover that flights between East Asia and North America pass over Alaska, not Hawaii."

Quick said a recent USGS report identified the 19 volcanoes that seriously threaten aviation but have no ground monitors. The report described the monitoring needs posed by the 169 geologically active volcanoes in the country.

To prevent aviation problems, "real-time 24-7 eruption reporting is necessary" in dangerous volcanoes, Quick said.

"Our goal is that an observatory shall notify the appropriate regional air traffic center of an ash-producing eruption within five minutes of the start of the event," he said.

Ash is monitored using satellite images, and its movement is forecasted with weather models. In some cases, portable ground-based radar may be necessary, Quick said.

To illustrate the continuing high risk, Quick described the 2003 eruption of the Anatahan volcano in the Mariana Islands.

"Hours elapsed from the eruption's onset to the issuance of the first warning to aviation of ash in the atmosphere," he said.

With ground monitoring and other systems in place, eruptions can now be forecast anywhere from hours to days in advance, Quick said.

The USGS, for example, issued a bulletin on Jan. 10 warning that Augustine volcano in southern Cook Inlet could blow within the next few weeks. It erupted the next day, interrupting aviation across southcentral Alaska.

The USGS, UAF and the state of Alaska's Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys all contribute to operating the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

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