Pilots avoid deadly ash with volcano monitors


POSTED: Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ANCHORAGE, Alaska » A month after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal complained about wasteful spending in President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package, including money for “;something called 'volcano monitoring,'”; Alaska pilots were grateful for such expenditures.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory was ready with warnings to flight officials when Alaska's Mount Redoubt blew five times Sunday night and yesterday, sending potentially deadly ash clouds north of Anchorage.

The volcano, about 100 miles southwest of Alaska's largest city, blew at night and even after sunrise was socked in by clouds, obscuring dangerous ash that can clog jet engines and knock aircraft from the sky.

However, readings from seismometers and atmospheric pressure sensors alerted scientists that an eruption had occurred. Weather radar confirmed the presence of an ash cloud that ascended more than 11 miles above sea level.

“;Without instruments in the ground, we would not have been able to tell you this was coming,”; said John Power, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Volcano monitoring became a political issue when Jindal gave the Republican response to Obama's message to Congress on the ec,onomic stimulus package. Jindal said the package was “;larded with wasteful spending,”; including $140 million for volcano monitoring.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Anchorage, wrote Jindal and said volcano monitoring is a matter of life and death in his state. He made the point again after the eruptions.

“;I sleep better knowing the scientists are at work at the AVO keeping track of this activity,”; he said by e-mail.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory is a joint program between the USGS, the University of Alaska and the state Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. The observatory was formed in response to the 1986 eruption of Mount Augustine.

The observatory has a variety of tools to predict eruptions. As magma moves beneath a volcano before an eruption, it generates earthquakes, swells the surface of a mountain and sends out gases. The observatory samples gases, measures earthquake activity and watches for landscape deformities.

“;Generally, the earthquakes that are occurring at these volcanoes are too small to be felt unless you're standing right on the volcano,”; Power said.

He declined yesterday to answer whether it was a good use of federal money to monitor volcano activity.

The observatory works closely with the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration to alert pilots and airlines to the danger of ash.

“;You can imagine flying an airplane into a sand blaster. That's what happens when an airplane encounters an ash cloud,”; Power said.

Alaska Airlines canceled 19 flights yesterday because of ash clouds. In-state carrier Era Aviation canceled four, and Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage kept 60 planes, including fighter jets, cargo aircraft and a 747, in shelters.