Sulfur-smelling steam could be birth of new volcano

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

KODIAK (AP) -- Steam that smells of sulfur spewing from the belly of a glacier on the Alaska Peninsula could be the first gasp of a new volcano, a scientist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory said.

Vapor plumes rising from the crest of the region's mountain range is a common sight, but this thermal feature is different, said vulcanologist Chris Nye.

''We're interested in this... this may be a new mountain being born,'' he said.

The vent was discovered on the south side of Mount Snowy by Willy Hall, a Kodiak bush pilot familiar with the terrain. He was flying a bear-viewing party to Mount Katmai in mid-September when he noticed steam pouring out of the middle of the glacier.

''It didn't look normal,'' Hall said. ''It was right in the middle of the glacier, steam coming right out of the glacier. I've flown up and down this glacier several times, so this was obviously out of place.''

He took a detour to get a closer look, circled several times and then closed in for a closer look.

''I flew directly over it and looked in. There was a big, gaping hole with steam coming out of it. It appeared to be 50 to 60 feet across,'' he said. ''I did fly through the vapor and it definitely smelled like rotten eggs. That confirmed it was sulfur.''

Hall has often peered into vents filled with boiling water along the mountain ranges. But all he saw this time was a big black cavity.

Hall passed on the information to the Volcano Observatory, which monitors seismic activity in the region.

Nye said the area where this new vent is located has been quiet. He plans to wait until seismic activity increases or the feature dramatically changes before the observatory places sensors on the glacier.

The Alaska Peninsula is renowned for the Katmai volcanic eruption of 1912. That event covered most of Kodiak Island with a thick blanket of volcanic ash so dense that it blackened the sun for 48 hours.

''New volcanoes do form, but not very often,'' Nye said.

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