While locals watch 'lava fountain,' scientists monitor from afar

Casey Grove
John Power, Scientist in Charge, talks about the ongoing eruption of Pavlof Volcano and the day to day operations of the Alaska Volcano Observatory on the campus of Alaska Pacific University on Saturday, May 18, 2013.
Bob Hallinen
Geophysicist Dave Schneider talks on the phone about the ongoing eruption of Pavlof Volcano in the Operations Room of the Alaska Volcano Observatory on the campus of Alaska Pacific University on Saturday, May 18, 2013.
Bob Hallinen

Glowing lava and hot rocks spewing hundreds of feet from the summit of Pavlof Volcano last week caught the attention of tiny Cold Bay, 30 miles to the southwest, even if many residents in Alaska's more populated areas paid little notice.

In Anchorage, 625 miles away, those most interested in the 8,262-foot conical volcano's ongoing eruption are volcanologists watching it with imaging satellites and instruments that can feel its inner rumblings. The ash that Pavlof shot up to 20,000 feet is a potential danger to airplanes, more so if the volcano blasts it up any higher. Predicting that threat is more difficult due to Pavlof's spontaneous nature, its remoteness and budget cuts to volcano-monitoring programs, researchers say.

The eruption at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula began Monday and seemed to be slowing on Saturday, though Alaska Volcano Observatory officials say that could change at any time. There are no flight restrictions because of the eruption, but pilots are being told to use caution and pay attention.

So far, Alaska's most-active volcano has mainly been putting on a show for the locals, aided by a lucky break in the weather.

Dane Lyons, a Cold Bay city councilman and heavy equipment operator, said his daughter mentioned the lava to him one night last week. He looked out the window and saw a glow.

"I could see like hot liquid or lava or whatever shooting out of the top of it. Occasionally I could see big chunks flying out and bouncing down the slope of it," Lyons said.

"Hopefully it won't get real violent," he said. "Where are you going to go way out here?"

Pavlof's remoteness is one reason it doesn't get as much attention from the general public as volcanoes closer to Alaska's cities, said John Power, scientist in charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Still, if one of the planes flying every day in the vicinity of Pavlof and the 27 active Aleutian Chain volcanoes sucks hot, corrosive volcanic ash into its jet engines, the plane could lose all power hundreds of miles from a usable runway, Power said.

"Because of the type of volcano it is, there's typically not a lot of advance warning for something like that," Power said. "Pavlof is one that tends to not have a lot of precursor activity."

Those warning signs come in the form of squiggles, the visual representation created by seismometers of earthquakes inside the volcano, caused by molten rock flowing through its inner plumbing. A strong enough earthquake generates a warning inside the volcano observatory's operations center, as well as automated text messages to certain volcanologists tasked with keeping tabs on Pavlof.

"It's like anything else these days," Power said, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket as he stood amid the various computer screens Saturday in the operations center.

How closely the volcanologists watch a particular volcano depends on its potential to harm people or industry, Power said. It also depends on how many instruments the observatory can afford to maintain at dozens of remote volcano sites, how much money is available to hire people to monitor the equipment and how many people might be affected by an eruption, he said.

"People say, 'Why does it matter?'" Power said. "Even though you think of places like Pavlof as being very remote, you know, just small towns around, when you come up to aviation flight levels, there's 20, 25,000 people who (fly) by it every day. So there's a significant hazard there."

Repeated cuts to federal funding have caused the observatory to scale back on equipment and staffing recently, Power said. The observatory announced earlier this month the cuts forced it to stop monitoring five volcanoes with the real-time sensors that give the fastest warning.

"Some of our abilities are curtailed a bit," Power said. "Our priority is to monitor the volcanoes that are more likely to cause severe impact."

That means staying focused on the volcanoes within striking distance of Southcentral Alaska and more than half of the state's population -- and those in the neighborhood of Dutch Harbor and Akutan because of the fishing industry presence in the volcanically active area, Power said. And, of course, they're still trying to monitor any of the volcanoes like Pavlof that could present an unexpected threat to planes, Power said.

Ash plumes would need to rise above 20,000 feet to threaten jet aviation, according to the observatory.

On Saturday, Pavlof continued spewing ash and sending up "rooster tails" of lava, the volcano observatory's Chris Waythomas said. The ash plume, a narrow cloud flowing a couple hundred miles southeast from the volcano, appeared to be thinning. The weather forecast is calling for winds to shift and the ash to head west, pushing it toward the community of Sand Point. Waythomas said residents there shouldn't expect more than a dusting.

Lyons, the Cold Bay resident, said clouds obscured Pavlof Volcano on Saturday, the 33rd anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state that killed 57 people. Lyons noted that an eruption the size of Saint Helens' could easily destroy his entire town -- volcanologists say that would be unprecedented, even if they don't fully understand Pavlof's destructive powers -- but he said he doesn't really worry about things like that.

"You wouldn't have much time to think about it," he said. "If it goes, it goes. If it don't, it don't."



Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Alaska Volcano Observatory Pavlof Volcano page