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It's (not) a blast

When one of Cook Inlet's volcanoes decides to blow, ash biggest hazard

Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2000

As cold as the winters get, it's easy to forget Alaska is part of the Ring of Fire -- an arc-like zone along the north Pacific characterized by volcanoes and seismic activity.

Along Cook Inlet's western shore, there are four volcanoes considered active: Mount Spurr, Redoubt Volcano, Iliamna Volcano and Augustine Volcano.

Most towns in Alaska, and especially the Kenai Penin-sula, are located far enough away from the fire-spurting mountains that the only danger, although a substantial hazard, is from clouds of volcanic ash.

According to Tom Miller, the scientist in charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage, ash is a very fine, sharp, abrasive material made up of pulverized rock and volcanic glass.

Though ash particles usually are the size of grains of sand, they can be the size of small gravel.

Ash clouds form after an eruption and travel with the wind.

Did You Know?

The 2989-90 volcanic eruption of Mount Redoubt on the west side of Cook Inlet was the second most costly eruption in the history of the United States. An estimated $160 million in lost revenue and damages resulted from ash fallout and debris flows. Washington state's Mount Saint Helens was the most costly volcanic eruption in U.S. history, causing over $440 million in damages.

-Information from: U.S.G.S. Alaska Volcano Observatory

"It's unlikely that the ash cloud is going to move at more than 30 to 40 miles per hour," Miller said.

Miller said the greatest hazard is to airplanes, especially jets, because the ash gets into engines and clogs turbines.

Game McGimsey, an observatory geologist, said components of ash will melt and coat turbine blades, causing them to slow or stop entirely -- shutting down the engines.

"It's just bad news for airplanes," McGimsey said.

In addition, the ash can abrade the body and windows of planes, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

For many people on the ground, ash falls are more nuisance than hazard.

The same abrasion and ash intake problems airplanes have can happen to automobiles.

"It's also detrimental to combustible engines," McGimsey said.

Miller recommended that if an ash warning is given -- usually through broadcast media -- cars, truck, boats and other machinery should be covered as much as possible. He said regular plastic tarps are sufficient.

Chris Waythomas, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said ash can damage electronic equipment, as well.

"Some of the moving parts can be damaged," by the fine material, Waythomas said.

The only considerable direct impact on health is inhalation risks, especially for people with respiratory problems, said Miller.

"If a dusty road will bother them," he said, "this will, too."

Those people should stay indoors as much as possible and avoid heavy exertion, Miller said.

Even after the ash cloud dissipates, the debris will cause trouble for a while.

Miller said removing the ash is a problem in itself.

Vehicles will need their oil and filters changed frequently to keep the ash from corroding the engine.

Simply sweeping ash of surfaces will not do the trick, Miller said, because the movement just redistributes it and causes it to recirculate.

"You're going to have to wash it off," he said.

And it will have to be washed off repeatedly.

"The ash doesn't disappear immediately," Miller said.

Instead, it will continue to be redistributed by activity and air currents for quite a while.

"Over time, it'll probably be a little less," Miller said.

He estimated a winter will have to pass before the ash is completely absorbed into the soil.

"The trick is to realize you're going to have to spend quite a while responding to this," he added.

Miller advised that people who plan to travel closer to one of the active volcanoes call the observatory's update line, 786-7478, which lists what volcanoes have been experiencing increased activity.

All in all, Miller said, volcanic ash falls should be handled calmly and rationally.

"You should use care and common sense in dealing with this," he said.

"Somebody living on the Cook Inlet can expect to see an ash fall every eight years, on average."

CREDIT:Clarion file photo

CAPTION:An ash cloud from Mount Redoubt rises behind Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel on the bluff in Kenai during the 1989-90 eruptions.

As cold as the winters get, it's easy to forget Alaska is part of the Ring of Fire -- an arc-like zone along the north Pacific characterized by volcanoes and seismic activity.

Along Cook Inlet's western shore, there are four volcanoes considered active: Mount Spurr, Redoubt Volcano, Iliamna Volcano and Augustine Volcano.

Most towns in Alaska, and especially the Kenai Penin-sula, are located far enough away from the fire-spurting mountains that the only danger, although a substantial hazard, is from clouds of volcanic ash.

According to Tom Miller, the scientist in charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage, ash is a very fine, sharp, abrasive material made up of pulverized rock and volcanic glass.

Though ash particles usually are the size of grains of sand, they can be the size of small gravel.

Ash clouds form after an eruption and travel with the wind.

"It's unlikely that the ash cloud is going to move at more than 30 to 40 miles per hour," Miller said.

Miller said the greatest hazard is to airplanes, especially jets, because the ash gets into engines and clogs turbines.

Game McGimsey, an observatory geologist, said components of ash will melt and coat turbine blades, causing them to slow or stop entirely -- shutting down the engines.

"It's just bad news for airplanes," McGimsey said.

In addition, the ash can abrade the body and windows of planes, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

For many people on the ground, ash falls are more nuisance than hazard.

The same abrasion and ash intake problems airplanes have can happen to automobiles.

"It's also detrimental to combustible engines," McGimsey said.

Miller recommended that if an ash warning is given -- usually through broadcast media -- cars, truck, boats and other machinery should be covered as much as possible. He said regular plastic tarps are sufficient.

Chris Waythomas, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said ash can damage electronic equipment, as well.

"Some of the moving parts can be damaged," by the fine material, Waythomas said.

The only considerable direct impact on health is inhalation risks, especially for people with respiratory problems, said Miller.

"If a dusty road will bother them," he said, "this will, too."

Those people should stay indoors as much as possible and avoid heavy exertion, Miller said.

Even after the ash cloud dissipates, the debris will cause trouble for a while.

Miller said removing the ash is a problem in itself.

Vehicles will need their oil and filters changed frequently to keep the ash from corroding the engine.

Simply sweeping ash of surfaces will not do the trick, Miller said, because the movement just redistributes it and causes it to recirculate.

"You're going to have to wash it off," he said.

And it will have to be washed off repeatedly.

"The ash doesn't disappear immediately," Miller said.

Instead, it will continue to be redistributed by activity and air currents for quite a while.

"Over time, it'll probably be a little less," Miller said.

He estimated a winter will have to pass before the ash is completely absorbed into the soil.

"The trick is to realize you're going to have to spend quite a while responding to this," he added.

Miller advised that people who plan to travel closer to one of the active volcanoes call the observatory's update line, 786-7478, which lists what volcanoes have been experiencing increased activity.

All in all, Miller said, volcanic ash falls should be handled calmly and rationally.

"You should use care and common sense in dealing with this," he said.

"Somebody living on the Cook Inlet can expect to see an ash fall every eight years, on average."



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