Homegrown Pyrotechnics

 Alaska’s volcanoes are a source of awe and concern.

[by Richard Emanuel]


When the ground shudders in Cold Bay, Rachel Kremer is apt to grab her camera and her son Zachariah and head out to the show. The small town on the Alaska Peninsula lies within 30 miles of Mount Pavlof, one of Alaska’s most active volcanoes.

“It definitely talks to us,” Kremer says of the snowcapped cone across the bay. “When it’s really going off, it rumbles and shakes.”

Kremer had never seen a volcano before moving to Alaska from Florida, but her husband, Josh, grew up in Cold Bay.

“Pavlof throws a fit most every year,” she says. “For Josh, it’s no big deal. For me, it’s a bit of a big deal, and there are others in town who get a little concerned.”

Their concern is not unfounded. Ash plumes from Pavlof can shut down aviation and threaten Cold Bay’s electrical power.

“But it’s a beautiful sight,” says Kremer. “I really enjoy watching it. A lot of people do. We go down and sit on the dock, snapping pictures. It’s like watching a fireworks show.”

Alaska has more than 50 historically active volcanoes, in an arc sweeping 1,600 miles from Mount Spurr south through Cook Inlet and the Alaska Peninsula, then southwest through the Aleutian Islands. Alaska’s volcanoes are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of earthquakes and volcanoes that wraps around the Pacific Ocean. In Alaska, quakes and volcanoes occur where the Pacific seafloor pushes under the North American continent.

One of the greatest hazards from volcanoes is volcanic ash, jagged bits of rock and glass blasted skyward in plumes. Clouds of corrosive ash can rain on distant communities and damage or down aircraft. On December 15, 1989, after an explosive eruption of Mount Redoubt, KLM flight 867 from Amsterdam flew into an ash cloud on approach to Anchorage. The Boeing 747’s four engines flamed out.  The jet dropped two miles before the crew could restart the engines and land in Anchorage, all 231 passengers unhurt.

At the time of the KLM near disaster, the Alaska Volcano Observatory was a year old. A partnership of the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Alaska state Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, the observatory received a funding boost and expanded its efforts to monitor Alaska’s volcanoes and issue warnings to, among other things, keep aircraft and ash apart.

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