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Alaska Volcano's Activity Propels Researchers

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A long-dormant volcano about 200 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, began spewing gases last month. As Annie Feidt of Alaska Public Radio notes, scientists quickly installed new seismic monitors to gather more information.


A long-dormant volcano in Alaska is showing new signs of life. It's called Four Peaked and it sits on the coastline about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. The volcano hasn't been active for thousands of years. But last month ash and steam began shooting through eight new vents. Scientists have rushed into action, taking measurements and placing monitors on the restless volcano.

Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Fiedt reports.

ANNIE FEIDT: Four Peaked doesn't look much like a volcano. It has a ridge of peaks instead of a single, pointy cone, and it's almost entirely covered by a massive glacier. But looks can be deceiving, and on a brilliant Sunday evening in mid September, observers noticed a white cloud rising up from its summit. At first, it was a mystery.

Mr. RICK WESSELS (Alaska Volcano Observatory): Yeah, from day one it was a puzzle. From the night we first got calls about steaming out in this area, we didn't expect steaming.

FEIDT: Rick Wessels is a volcanologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. He says the steaming left the scientists with a lot of guesswork about what was going to happen next.

Mr. WESSELS: I think this has been a fun eruption, because it's actually - unlike a lot of our volcanoes, we don't have it covered with instruments. We really have to kind of use everything we've learned in other volcanoes, and in schools, and whatever, and pull it all together and try to make our best estimates as we go, and keep improving it.

FEIDT: Days after that first event, Wessels landed on the volcano with colleague Christie Wallace(ph). Wallace recalls looking over her shoulder at the steaming summit as she scrapped ice, rock and ash into a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. She now keeps the rock samples in small glass tubes in her lab. The tiny pebbles don't contain any magma, the molten rock that makes up an eruption. But a gas measurement shows new magma has arrived in the volcano, and the reading was high, at a level usually only seen before or during an eruption. Wallace says it's prompted a lot of discussion.

Ms. CHRISTIE WALLACE (Volcanologist): And one question we all asked ourselves is what are the time scales? You know, should a volcano wake up, how long do we have before an eruption, if that's where it's going? And you know, the answer for some of these volcanoes that have done similar things: you know, anywhere from a couple of months to seven years.

FEIDT: When volcanoes do erupt, they have personalities, following similar patterns with each episode. But since Four Peaked has been dormant for several millennia, no one knows its style. Wessels says it's like working without a script. That's different than the eruption that took place last January at Augustine, another Alaska volcano.

Mr. WESSELS: With eruptions every 10, 20 years or so, over the last couple of centuries, it's already laid it out: here's generally how I do things when I erupt. You know, sort Old Faithful style.

FEIDT: The scientists rushed two seismometers to Four Peaked to measure earthquake activity, another warning sign for eruptions.

Back at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, geophysicist Peter Cervelli stands in front of a computer, monitoring the volcano.

Mr. PETER CERVELLI (Alaska Volcano Observatory): Let me see if I can find you an earthquake to look at. So there are two earthquakes in rapid succession that are occurring near Four Peaked. Here's another one. There's another one.

FEIDT: Because of the very real possibility of an eruption, the volcanologists hoped to put more seismometers on Four Peaked in the days ahead. But there are dozens more potentially active volcanoes in the U.S. that don't have any monitors. Scientists hope the unexpected activity on Four Peaked helps makes the case nationwide for getting at least one monitor on even the most remote volcanoes.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

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