Augustine’s eruption provides educators with ‘real-time’ lessons

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006


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  An SEM image of a vesicular ash particle erupted by Augustine volcano on Jan. 13. The ash sample was collected during the ashfall in Homer by John Paskievitch. The image was acquired by using a ISI-40 Scanning Electron Microscope. University of Alaska Fairbanks,

In this Jan. 24 photo, Dave Schneider and Cyrus Read clean the Augustine webcam housing.

Photo by Alaska Volcano Observat

On a clear day, Augustine Volcano is visible from Homer Middle School. So when the volcano began erupting earlier this month, Suzanne Haines decided her seventh-grade geography students could take a break from pyramids and pharaohs to take a closer look.

“It’s a teachable moment, with a major event going on in our back yard,” Haines said. “... You don’t always have an active volcano in your back yard to study — especially with the Web cams.”

Using the Alaska Volcano Observatory’s Web site ( Haines developed a study guide, and students have been using the site to monitor the volcano’s activity.

“Students can see different aspects of what’s going on, everything from wind trajectory, seismographs, and activity over the last 24 hours,” Haines said.

Students also have been comparing Augustine to other volcanoes, from other volcanoes along Cook Inlet to Mt. St. Helens in Washington.

“We looked at a video of Mt. St. Helens, and one thing we looked at is how technology has changed from monitoring Mt. St. Helens to monitoring this volcano,” Haines said.


An SEM image of a vesicular ash particle erupted by Augustine volcano on Jan. 13. The ash sample was collected during the ashfall in Homer by John Paskievitch. The image was acquired by using a ISI-40 Scanning Electron Microscope.

University of Alaska Fairbanks,

Indeed, the advances in the technology used to monitor volcanoes, combined with high-speed access to the Internet, have enabled educators and students across the country to follow Augustine’s eruptions in real time.

“A lot of teachers from elementary to university classes have been requesting ash samples through our Web site to do science projects,” said Kristi Wallace, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. “It’s intriguing. From all over the United States, people are seizing the opportunity to do real-time studies of the volcano.”

Chris Nye, who manages participation in the Alaska Volcano Observatory of the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, noted in an e-mail that following the volcano so closely wasn’t possible just a few years ago.

Prior to the Internet, the only sources for volcano information were releases from the observatory or media coverage of an eruption.

“This is the first eruption we’ve been able to show real-time seismic data for. Beyond just the presence of the Internet, it’s the maturity of the Internet — the prevalence of broadband connections and enough bandwidth to move the data,” Nye wrote, noting that the observatory’s Web site had 70 million hits from more than 140 countries in the first half of January.

“We just plain couldn’t have done that a few years ago,” he said.

Wallace said the observatory has fielded quite a few inquiries from teachers. With classes examining all the data available on the Web site, many of the questions have more to do with how to interpret the data.

“Sometimes they call in with questions like, ‘Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?’ It’s fun to see how people are interpreting the data on their own, taking a stab at being amateur scientists,” Wallace said.

One way to participate in the research is to collect ash samples, and several classes across the peninsula are preparing to do just that.

Wallace, who heads the observatory’s ash collection efforts, said she’s received a number of samples already from the Homer area as well as the Iliamna area.

“I’m hoping more people are geared to do that if we have another explosive eruption. We’re very happy to have samples, and most people are very enthusiastic about getting them, so it’s a win-win situation,” Wallace said.

There is a protocol to collecting ash samples. Wallace said quite a few teachers attended a workshop Jan. 19 in Homer, and detailed collection instructions are available on the observatory’s Web site.

“Students who collect careful samples are participating in real science,” Nye wrote, explaining that a great deal of information about the volcano can be uncovered by analyzing the ash.

“Because observatory staff can’t be everywhere ash might fall, observations from and samples collected by local volunteers are an important part of their data gathering process.

“I think with what’s happening, a lot of people are becoming more observant through time, and it helps us. We’re getting good data,” Wallace said.

Haines, who splits her time between Homer Middle School and West Homer Elementary, said students are discussing volcanoes in other classes as well.

For example, math classes are looking at earthquake readings and trying to determine what type of seismic event would generate a tsunami.

Haines said students were “calm but highly curious” when they returned to class after Homer schools were closed during eruptions on Jan. 13.

“When they came back they were just very curious about what was taking place with the volcano. It makes it that much more fascinating when you have more information to work with,” Haines said.

“... When they’re on that Web site, they’re completely fascinated by it. If you gave them most of the day to do volcano activities, they would go for that.”

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