By JEANNETTE J. LEE, Associated Press Writer
From his home in Nanwalek, Vince Evans can stare across the water at
Augustine Volcano as it pumps out clouds of ash and steam, but like
many residents in the isolated village, Evans prefers to check the
Internet for the latest on the erupting island mount.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory's popular Web site lets the public
track Augustine's activity, from live earthquake data to hourly
updates on the blasts of ash and rocky pyroclastic flows that have
rumbled down the snowy volcano since it began erupting in mid-January.
"When I wake up, I turn it on and keep track of Augustine through the
night," said Evans, a 43-year-old health practitioner in the
south-central Alaska community.
With a network that includes seismic stations, cameras and Global
Positioning System receivers, Augustine is the most heavily
instrumented volcano in the state. In the last decade, scientists have
concentrated equipment on the uninhabited island because it is a short
flight from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula and has less vegetation,
ice and snow than other nearby volcanos in the Alaska Range.
Because of the Web site, residents of remote Alaska communities like
Nanwalek can make better decisions about whether to shut down schools,
carry dust masks to church or take the time to cover heating vents
with pantyhose to filter volcanic ash.
"We can go online and see the wind direction and see when ash is going
to fall," Evans said. "Before, it just happened, now there's more
The Web site provides information Evans did not have during a major
eruption 20 years ago, when a dark cloud filled with ash and spiked
with lightning headed across Cook Inlet toward Nanwalek, a 200-person
village only reachable by plane or boat.
"We just went home and watched it through our window," Evans said.
"Information we just got through TV and radio."
Augustine dusted small communities in south-central Alaska with
extremely light ashfall during two series of eruptions in
January. Alaska Airlines, the state's largest carrier, grounded dozens
of flights during one day of ash explosions. The string of sporadic
eruptions could go on for months, scientists said.
The wealth of data, combined with easy communication through the
Internet, has allowed the public to glean more timely and useful
information about Augustine's eruptions than those of any other
volcano in the state's past.
"No erupting volcano in Alaska has ever been this closely monitored
before," said Game McGimsey, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological
The observatory's Web site has tallied about 158 million hits this
year, said Seth Snedigar, an analyst programmer for the state
Department of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
Regularly updated Web camera images of the 4,134-foot volcano receive
the most mouse clicks, he said. One camera sits on Augustine's eastern
flank, while another records the volcano from the town of Homer, 75
miles northeast across Cook Inlet.
Observatory scientists also use the site as a public journal of the
research trips they take to the island during lulls between
explosions, as well as aerial photos of Augustine. Data collection
also is safer for scientists now that volcanos have more instruments
"The public can see almost everything we see," McGimsey said. "Even
the seismic data is exactly what's posted in our operation room right
People can also e-mail their own observations or ask questions through
the site. Hundreds have written from all 50 states and a host of
foreign countries and scientists have replied to every missive. Many
Alaskans have mailed ash samples to the observatory after following
the site's step-by-step guide on ash collection.
Improvements in volcano monitoring have helped the Federal Aviation
Administration and airlines make more accurate decisions on flying
restrictions during a volcanic eruption.
"The FAA and folks having to make the call to delay flights can almost
do it in real time," said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.
On the Net:
Alaska Volcano Observatory: http://www.avo.alaska.edu/
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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