Friday, July 20, 2007

Russian volcano eruption is quite a sight...for students!

A volcano erupting 1,800 miles away is giving students and scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks a unique research opportunity.

Klyuchevskoy, a 15,862-foot volcano in the Russian Far East, has been erupting since January but on June 28 began blasting ash up to 32,000 feet high.

“It looked like the volcano was belching ash like no tomorrow,” said John Dehn, a researcher with the Alaska Volcano Observatory at UAF. “There was a nice big eruption. It erupted for quite a while — many hours, more than a day.”

It was the largest eruption to occur in the North Pacific in a decade, Dehn said, and it is providing students at UAF with the opportunity to work with scientists across the world as they monitor and study the volcano.

The UAF graduate students, working with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, began working immediately to track the massive ash plume as it spread across the region.

Volcanic ash moves quickly through the air, Dehn said, and within a day the ash from Klyuchevskoy had reached Alaska.

“At one point, we had a continuos ash flow from Klyuchevskoy east across the Bering Sea passing over the Aleutian Islands … and up to the Alaska Peninsula,” he said.

Volcanic ash wreaks havoc on jet engines, according to Ken Deans, another researcher with the volcano observatory.

“Any ash that travels to Alaska is drifting right through the superhighway of air travel to the Far East,” he said. “It’s critical for us to understand how distal plumes are moving.”

Using Web cameras, satellite images, weather data and computer algorithms, the Volcano Observatory team created three-dimensional computer models of where the ash would most likely travel. That information was used by federal and international officials to reroute air traffic around the dangerous clouds of volcanic ash. The staff at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which is a joint program of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Geophysical Institute at UAF and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, is charged with monitoring about 160 potentially active volcanos around the north Pacific region — 70 in Alaska — Dehn said.

“In the North Pacific we have, on average, about seven eruptions a year that put ash into air traffic lanes,” he said. “In Alaska it happens less frequently, but it’s not uncommon to have a couple each year.”

In January 2006, Mount Augustine, located in Cook Inlet, spewed out ash, disrupting air traffic in the region.

As of Wednesday morning, Klyuchevskoy was no longer belching large amounts of ash, but researchers here are still keeping an eye on it and are noting some small steam plumes and a few faint thermal anomalies, Dehn said. While Dehn and his colleagues continue to monitor the volcano on computer screens, other researchers from UAF are getting a closer view.

A handful of graduate students from UAF are traveling to Russia this week to study Klyuchevskoy up close.

“The ones that are traveling over to Kamchatka (the region of Russia where the volcano is located) are in a very enviable position,” Dehn said. “It’s a very rare experience for students to see an erupting volcano. It’s one thing to read in a book. It’s another thing entirely to see it with the naked eye.”

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