Volcano Spews Pungent Ash Miles Into the Air; Health Alert Issued
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Clouds of corrosive ash carrying the stench of sulfur drifted today from the erupting peak of Augustine Volcano after the restless mountain spit debris more than nine miles high, triggering health alerts in Alaska’s largest city.
The 4,025-foot volcano, quiet since 1976, erupted early Thursday on its uninhabitated island 175 miles southwest of Anchorage and by early today had spread ash as far away as Skwentna, about 75 miles northwest of Anchorage.
Pat Poole, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Service, said the Anchorage area probably will see more of the carburetor-choking ash falling by midday, or after the winds change direction.
″We’ve had some, but so far it hasn’t amounted to anything,″ Poole said of the acidic gray-brown dust. ″But as the winds shift from south to southwest, they should start carrying more of it over the Anchorage bowl. It’ll probably be a little more noticable around noon.″
Meanwhile, Anchorage police reported less traffic on the streets than usual, and a generally quiet night.
″The only incident worth talking about is a teenage volcanic ash party that we broke up late last night,″ said Officer Terry Gaines. ″At least that’s what they called it. One of them was wearing a mask. But they went home in an orderly manner.″
Anchorage International Airport remained open overnight although few aircraft were using the facility, an official said.
″Traffic is down by at least two-thirds,″ said a tower supervisor who asked that he not be named. ″Nothing’s been moving around here for a couple of hours.″
Anchorage authorities issued a health alert urging people to stay home and avoid exercise, and the Chugach Electric Association warned people on life- support systems to be prepared to go to the hospital.
The utility, which provides power to most of south-central Alaska, shut down some of its generators for about an hour Thursday, fearing the ash would damage the turbines. The utility asked non-essential businesses to close and requested customers to cut power consumption immediately.
The ash appeared to be having little effect thus far on people with respiratory ailments.
Rick Taylor, a nursing supervisor at Humana Hospital, said a few people showed up complaining about eye irritations, but there had been no admissions.
″We’ve had a total of one in for a respiratory check, but the patient’s doing real well,″ Taylor said. ″No serious problems.″
Most state workers, non-essential personnel at Fort Richardson and many other workers were sent home early Thursday. Anchorage officials recalled the employees today.
″We have no significant ash fallout here,″ said Dee Frankfourth, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office. ″We’re resuming normal operations, but we’re continuing the health advisory.″
Anchorage grocery stores reported a surge in food buying.
″Everybody’s just swamped today,″ said Mark Bauer, an assistant manager of a Safeway store.
In Soldotna, on the Kenai Peninsula, the cloud brought the stench of sulfur. City workers stopped using their computers to protect the electronic components from the ash and dust.
″Compared to the 1976 eruption, this appears to be worse,″ said Kenai Airport Manager Randy Ernst. He estimated there was an eighth of an inch of ash on the runway.
Augustine hurled a column of corrosive ash and debris nine miles into the air, and prevailing winds carried the cloud north, turning a fresh blanket of snow brown. By late Thursday, the cloud was 150 miles long and about 30 miles wide, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Charlotte Rowe, a member of the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute team monitoring the volcano, described the activity as moderate and the volcano did not appear to be building up pressure.
She said the activity might continue for a while: ″In the 1976 eruption, this happened months before the actual eruption took place - small swarms of activity, that came and went.″
The mountain’s resurrection first was reported by the Coast Guard and residents of the coastal community of Homer.
″It appears, since about 12:30 a.m. to about 12 noon (Thursday), to have been through at least seven eruptive phases, or eruptive pulses,″ said Tom Miller, a U.S. Geological Survey vulcanologist, who flew near the volcano.
Several airliners flying the polar route between the Orient and Europe were diverted from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The Air Force moved some of its F-15 Eagle fighter jets to remote outposts. The Army, Alaska Air National Guard and Air Force moved their planes into hangars to protect them from the ash.
A government report after Augustine’s last major blast in 1976 warned that avalanches triggered by a major eruption could generate a tidal wave that would devastate coastal communities around the inlet. There were no reports of such a wave Thursday.
Five major eruptions have been recorded since Augustine was discovered in 1778 by Capt. James Cook. The eruptions came in 1812, 1883, 1935, 1963 and 1976. A tsunami generated by the 1883 eruption sent a 30-foot wave into Port Graham, flooding houses and destroying boats.
There are about 60 active volcanos in the so-called Aleutian Arc, stretching 1,500 miles from near Anchorage to Kiska Island near the end of the chain of Aleutian Islands, Miller said.