'We have a wide open system': Redoubt eruptions expected to continue with little warning

Posted: Friday, March 27, 2009

Sheila and James Isaac thought they'd enjoy a beautiful sunny Thursday, maybe even take advantage of the break in the weather and fly from their lodge on the west side of Cook Inlet to Soldotna for supplies.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
From a perch on the bluff in Kenai, Ed Witveck watches the ash cloud from Mount Redoubt's Thursday morning eruption as it makes its way toward the southern Kenai Peninsula several hours after the mountain erupted 12 miles into the sky.

"Then around 10:30, we see this dark, dark cloud, that seemed to get larger and darker as it came closer, and the next thing we knew it came over the lodge," Sheila said.

"We could just see, in front of the lodge looking east, a strip of light, That was it. Everything else was completely in dark. It was a blackout," she said.

Sheila and her husband were at their remote fishing lodge, Homestead Lodge, in Silver Salmon Creek, about 35 miles south of the erupting Mount Redoubt.

The Isaacs move back and forth between their abode on the lonely coastline and their home in Soldotna through the winter months.

The cloud of darkness the Isaacs were consumed by was a plume of volcanic ash, freshly blasted from the summit of the nearby mountain.

Redoubt's two morning eruptions at 8:34 a.m. and 9:24 a.m. sent ash to a height of over 60,000 feet above sea level, prompting ashfall advisories for a trace to one-eighth of an inch to settle across the peninsula over the course of the day.

Shortly after the darkness set in Silver Salmon Creek however, the couple found themselves caught in the middle of a heavy ashfall.

"It felt like sand coming down with the breeze. Now it's all in my hair and everywhere. I went outside to get a little footage and I was covered," Sheila Isaac said.

She said when they went outside neither wore a particle mask and they immediately regretted it.

"I could feel it in my chest, in my lungs, it wasn't a good move," Sheila said.

She and her husband sat tight while the cloud moved overhead, lifting to reveal a whole new world outside.

Dark gray ash covered everything.

"It was a pretty thick layer, it looked like Mars out there," she said.

While the rest of the peninsula spent Thursday morning awaiting ashfall, the Isaacs began cleaning up their lodge and equipment.

Sheila Isaacs said they had to shut down the wind generator that provides them with power, along with the Monitor heat system, while James cleaned off his airplane so the particles didn't stick to it.

Suffice to say, there was no grocery run for the Isaacs on Thursday.

Life on the Kenai Peninsula was less severely impacted, though a dusting of ash was reported from Homer, north through the central peninsula.

Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory are warning however, that the days of advanced eruption warning are likely over.

"At this point we have a wide open system," Stephanie Prejean, a research geophysicist with AVO, said during a teleconference held Thursday afternoon.

Prejean explained that once a volcano is classified as an open system, it generally provides less warning in terms of elevated levels of earthquake activity leading up to an eruption.

Scientists have no way of knowing how long the eruptions may go on, either.

Prejean said that during the mountain's last eruption series in 1989 through 1990, ash plumes were ejected for a period spanning four months, with lulls in activity that lasted as long as a couple of weeks.

She said the same can be expected now.

Thursday morning's eruption also sent a lahar, or volcanic mudflow, down the Drift River Valley.

Lana Johnson, a spokesperson from Marketing Solutions in Anchorage, contracted by the terminal's operator, Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co., said a crew that had arrived at the terminal early Thursday morning, was evacuated by helicopter as the mountain began its first eruption around 8:30 a.m.

On Monday, floods surged down the valley, just sparing the fortified Drift River Terminal, an oil storage facility at the river's mouth.

Just over 6 million gallons of Cook Inlet crude is being stored in two tanks at the facility to keep them stabilized should the levees that surround the facility fail.

Concerns have been raised that future floods could inundate the compound and result in an oil spill

Sara Francis, a public information officer for the Coast Guard, reported Thursday afternoon during a teleconference that an overflight was in progress, but that there had been no visuals of the site since the evacuation.

Despite the earlier onslaught, Francis said the dike systems protecting the tanks were in "good shape."

"We also understand at this time that the safest place for this oil to be right now is in those tanks, because tanks have secondary and tertiary containment and the vessel doesn't necessarily have that same capacity," Francis said.

The terminal consists of seven 277,000-barrel oil storage tanks, three of which have been decommissioned, two that are empty and cleaned of oil residue, and two currently holding about 74,000 barrels of oil each.

Francis and Johnson said the terminal's docking facility would require assessment before it could be used.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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