Cleveland volcano joins Okmok in Aleutian ash fest

PILOTS DIVERTED: Plumes reach miles into sky, witnesses say.

July 22, 2008 

Okmok has company.

Mount Cleveland, a volcano in the Aleutian Islands about 90 miles west of still-simmering Okmok Caldera, erupted Monday, giving Alaska dueling volcanoes.

"Things are very hopping," research geophysicist Peter Cervelli of the Alaska Volcano Observatory said Monday afternoon. "We've been ramped up 24/7 for nine days because of Okmok, and to have Cleveland suddenly go off keeps us busy. I'm not sure I'd describe it as fun, but it's certainly exciting."

Cleveland's eruption was confirmed by mariners and pilots traveling near the volcano, observatory geologist Jennifer Adleman said.

There's no monitoring equipment on Chuginadak Island, an uninhabited island 150 miles southwest of Dutch Harbor and about 90 miles west of Umnak Island, where Okmok began to erupt July 12.

The one-two seismic punch prompted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to issue an air-quality advisory for Unalaska, Dutch Harbor and Nikolski. People there with respiratory conditions should take precautions if the volcanoes send ash their way.

Bob Clark of Unalaska Building Supply said the only day Dutch Harbor saw ash was July 12.

"Right now there's kind of a haze. Usually we don't have haze, and today we do," he said Monday. National Weather Service forecasters noted the haze, too, and think it could be volcano-related.

Clark said the store started rationing dust masks after the initial Okmok eruption.

"We're a small store and we have a limited supply, and we didn't know how long it would last," he said. "We wanted to make sure the elderly and the clinic would have some."

More masks are on order, he said.

Aviation forecaster Ed Wentworth of the National Weather Service said a sigmet short for significant meteorological event has been issued to warn pilots about ash from the two volcanoes.

When you say there's ash, pilots don't go there, he said.

Karen O'Meara of Nikolski Adventures said planes haven't been able to land at the tiny town of Nikolski in the two weeks since Okmok erupted.

Weve got two workers stuck here who'd love to get back to their families in Anchorage, she said.

It was foggy and rainy Monday, O'Meara said, so if ash is falling, no one can tell.

Pen-Air was operating as usual out of Dutch Harbor on Monday, although there have been a handful of days when flights in and out of that town were halted by Okmok.

Adleman said Okmoks plume on Monday rose about 24,000 feet, or more than four miles, into the sky. Reports of the Cleveland ash plume from pilots and mariners varied between 15,000 feet and 30,000 feet, according to Adleman and the National Weather Service.

The alert level for both volcanoes Monday was orange. A red alert went out for Okmok on Saturday when activity increased significantly, but it was lowered to orange late Sunday. Cleveland went from yellow to orange on Monday.

The 5,676-foot Cleveland erupts with frequency. It last erupted in February; in 2006, it erupted four times.

Cleveland's usually a one-puff volcano, said Wentworth of the Weather Service. It's a funny little volcano.

In 1944, a man stationed on Chuginadak Island with the 11th Army Air Force was killed during a Cleveland eruption that launched car-sized boulders across the island. The man's boot tracks disappeared at a deep mud slide.

Okmok last erupted in 1997. This time, the initial eruption chased away 10 people living and working at an organic cattle ranch on Umnak Island six miles from the volcano.

Lonnie Kennedy, who runs the ranch, ferried people to safety two at a time in a helicopter, getting seven of them out before ash got too thick for him to keep flying. The remaining two people were evacuated by boat.

Kennedy, who reportedly is still in Dutch Harbor but couldn't be reached Monday, is eager to return to the island to check on the cattle, said his brother John, who lives in Arizona.

He has no idea what he's going to find, the brother said.

Adleman said there's low-level vegetation on the island but nothing big and leafy. She said there's fresh water too, but she doesnt know how far it is from the ranch.

"The silver lining is they are free-roaming," she said. The hope is the cattle can find a place where they are sheltered from debris.

Find Beth Bragg online at or call 257-4309.

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