Thursday, October 1, 2009

In the green

I once told people I covered five beats, fishing, environment, schools, state legislature and volcano.
On Wednesday, that latter beat became a lot less exciting then it has been.
Mt. Redoubt has officially been declared "back in bed."
The Alaska Volcano Observatory down graded the peak to alert level "NORMAL", color code green this week.
I've had the fortunate experience to get to cover this event from the mountains first inner tremblings until now.
It started back on November 7 of 2008, when staff at AVO put the mountain on alert level ADVISORY, color code yellow.
At the time it wasn't clear what the mountain would do.
Peter Cervelli, a geophysicist with AVO told me then, "There's no reason to believe that this unrest will result in an eruption. Right now we're keeping a good eye on it."
That being said, the mountain historically had an eruption every 20-30 years, the most recent in late 1989 through mid 1990.
"We're at 20 years, it might be a bit early but they're not bus schedules," Cervelli said of the volcanic eruption cycles.
The one thing he and his colleague John Power, also a geophysicist with AVO noted, was that 20 years ago the mountain went from quiet murmurings to full scale eruption in about 24 hours.
With that being said, the mountain stayed low on the radar until January 25.
That was the day AVO notched the mountain up to color code Orange and put the mountain on a 24/7 watch, warning it could blow in a matter of hours.
"Not to panic people, but this could spin up that quickly, and we want to give people the possibilities," Dave Schneider, a volcanologist with AVO, told me on that bright and cold Sunday evening.
National media caught wind of this, and I was interviewed by CNN Radio while other outlets produced a number of stories on the pending disaster.
The mountain had other plans however.
It stayed low, sighing out a few wisps of steam but not much else, leading to a lot of anticipation and anxiety but not much else.
Every clear evening was a reported red alert from someone asking if the mountain had blown, but that was exciting as things got, and you can imagine, it grew old quick.
Weeks passed, I did a story on how the community would prepare, what to expect, what gadgets were up on the mountain keeping an eye on things along with regular updates talking to AVO staff.
In mid March, the volcano went back to color code yellow and it seemed like maybe the whole thing was a bluff.
A few days later it was back at it with its antics and the mountain was re-elevated to color code orange after a phreatic eruption in the summit crater.
A phreatic eruption is essentially the explosion that results when water and steam trapped underneath bed rock bursts out.
The explosion told geologists lava was close to the surface, though not yet coming out, and something was in the works.
But still nothing happened.
With the masses either confused or lulled, that mountain roared back to life, erupting five times between late night March 22 and early morning March 23.
The day the mountain blew was cloudy and mild.
I remember that ironically my mother and a friend back east both knew about it before I did and had emailed me.
When I stepped outside I remember the air smelling of sulfur.
The mountain had several more eruptions in the following weeks with the last occurring on April 6.
The central peninsula never saw more than a fine dusting of ash. Homer however, was hit twice, first lightly and then pretty good Anchorage. Some communities to the north also got ash.
Economically, it caused delays and flight cancellations at the airport in Anchorage and caused for some rerouting of others to Fairbanks.
The biggest inpact the volcano was likely on oil production in Cook Inlet.
When the volcano first blew, it melted a significant portion of the Drift River Glacier, sending the melt water rushing downstream into the Drift River Valley towards the aptly named Drift River Oil Terminal.
The DRT was a holding point for west side crude producers. Every few weeks a tanker would visit and transport the oil across the inlet to Nikiski.
The facility had seen minor flooding in the 89-90 eruption and been "hardened" since.
This time mud and debris piled high up against the fortified walls protecting the facility and inundated the unprotected landing strip and hangar.
It was quite a sight to see, (LINK) and I got to take it all in first hand on a flyover.
The shutdown of the facility brought west side production to a standstill until late August and raised questions about the operation's environmental safety.
It has since not been reopened, and west side producers are storing oil in their own facilities and shipping it directly to a tanker on a more frequent and costly basis.
The volcano has been speculated to have contributed to the recent downfall of at least one area producer. (LINK)
From a personal standpoint I can think of four impacts the volcano had.
The first was the "Oooh" effect.
That was the radio interviews, the curious emails and phone calls. Plus all the drives to work with the out of this world view.
The second was the "ahh" experience.
One of my favorite memories was skiing one fine April morning with views of the billowing mountain over the horizon, and then hiking later to get a better vantage. (LINK)
Then there was the professional experience.
By the time the mountain erupted I was practically on a first name basis with many of the staff members at AVO.
I loved getting to talk to these people who knew so much about what they did and were so passionate about volcanoes.
I always appreciated when every now and then I'd get a compliment for asking a good question or knowing to ask something other reporters would overlook. Environmental geology paid dividends.
The overflight of the terminal was amazing as well. Visiting the far side of the inlet is an expensive proposition and I certainly appreciated the opportunity. The fact I was paid was a mere bonus.
Getting to see the destruction was pretty impressive as well, after all, I am a boy.
I also enjoyed working on a few more creative stories, for example, the benefits of ash fall, and how teachers were incorporating the erupting the volcano into science lessons.
I wish I could have had a volcano in my backyard during my middle school volcano unit.
There were annoyances though.
The first came the immediate weekend after the eruption.
I was going to a journalism conference, and I remember in the early morning hours getting ready to go, thinking how ridiculous the situation was.
I got up and first checked the weather. A system was moving in and I didn't want to be driving through the passes if there was avalanche danger. It seemed the weather had taken a different track though, so next I checked the AVO webicorders, which monitored earthquake activity on the mountain.
I could see it hadn't erupted the night before, and the drum beat rumblings it had been going through were slightly weaker than they'd been.
The rhythmic shakings, depicted as scribbles on the page, at the time, were a good way to guess if the mountain would go anytime soon. They would steadily get larger and larger until they went to red, indicating they were off the chart and the mountain was erupting.
It looked like I was in the clear for long enough to get to Anchorage. I checked the wind direction between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, the altitude the heavy ash likely to fall out on the near area would get ejected to, lastly to make sure that if there was an eruption, I wouldn't be caught somewhere in the mountains.
The abrasive ash could destroy a motor in no time and I wanted none of that.
Again I was in the clear, and I knew that while the mountain would certainly blow again over the weekend, that was fine, so long as I wasn't driving around.
What a strange way to live I thought as I went into the kitchen to make breakfast.
The other major downside of the eruption was what it did to the snow pack in Turnagain Pass and elsewhere. The ash made a very unstable and unpredictable layer that let loose any new snow that fell on it. It also wasn't reported to be much fun to ski on.
Fortunately we had a very nice spring and I was biking soon enough.
Now it's all over, the national media have long since forgotten and likely most the rest of the world as well.
The quiet won't likely last for long though. This area is geologically very active and it's only a matter of time before one of Redoubt's sisters will awake from slumber.
The slumbering giant in the night appears so peaceful, seen from AVO's Redoubt Hut, approximately 7.5 mi from Redoubt's summit crater. (click to enlarge)


Andrew J. Bernstein said...

Sorry to hear that that particularly fertile story has dried up for you, but I remain envious of the diversity of stories you get to cover up there.

From today's Times:

Andrew J. Bernstein said...

P.S. I tried to serve some King at Jamie's birthday dinner last night -- some of the guests turned their noses up at the "fishy taste." Ingrates.

And isn't fish supposed to taste like fish anyway?