ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A volcano is rumbling in Alaska. Augustine volcano, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted this morning, sending a plume of ash high into the air. This is the second eruption this week, and as Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports, scientists expect even stronger events in the weeks ahead.
ANNIE FEIDT reporting:
Dozens of computer screens light up a small basement room in the Alaska Volcano Observatory building in Anchorage. Scientists are keeping their eyes on the monitors and their ears on the phones, which ring constantly.
Unidentified Woman: Alaska Volcano Observatory.
FEIDT: The computers deliver pictures and data that reveal even small movements on Augustine.
Mr. CHRIS WAYTHOMAS (Alaska Volcano Observatory): The volcano is very well-instrumented; it's pretty wired up. So if it wiggles at all, we know it.
FEIDT: Chris Waythomas is a geologist with the observatory. He helps monitor all 42 active volcanoes in Alaska, and says with Augustine's eruption, he feels like his team has made it to the Super Bowl. He points to a screen that's monitoring movements near the volcano's summit.
Mr. WAYTHOMAS: These are the seismic data that we're getting for Augustine. And it's like the electrocardiogram of the volcano, so it's kind of the volcano's heartbeat, if you will. And the more beats there are, the more excited we get.
FEIDT: Augustine's heart is beating quickly. The volcano's current pattern is similar to its last eruption cycle in 1986. Waythomas says that means Augustine is likely building towards a bigger eruption. There's a slight chance each eruption could cause a tsunami, but the primary concern is for air traffic.
Mr. WAYTHOMAS: Volcanic ash and jet airplanes don't go together well at all. And so we're doing everything we can to put out information that helps us determine where these ash clouds are going, what the concentration of ash is, how high they are in the atmosphere and then what kind of hazard they might pose to jet aircraft.
FEIDT: In 1989, an ash cloud from another Alaskan volcano disabled all four engines of a fully loaded 747 en route to Alaska. The plane plummeted thousands of feet before the pilots were able to gain control and land safely. The incident highlighted the importance of tracking volcanic ash. Rick Wessels is following the ash cloud from Augustine's current eruption on satellite images. Using computer models during the eruption, he predicted where the ash would go, and he was relieved to find the system worked.
Mr. RICK WESSELS: The models predicted that we'd have ash going to the north and to the east, 'cause there's a lot of very complex wind directions going on right now at different altitudes. So it looks really strange when you see the model and you kind of go, `Hmm. I wonder if that's true,' and then you watch it develop on the satellite data and sure enough, the cloud starts splitting up and pieces of it started going north and pieces of it started going east. And so, yeah, it's nice to see it happen that way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FEIDT: Scientists are also worried about possible ash fall in communities across the most populated parts of Alaska. Ash fall can cause respiratory problems.
Unidentified Computerized Voice: Do you have any coupons, point star(ph) clearance items or...
FEIDT: A local retailer in Anchorage was having a hard time keeping protective dust masks on the shelves.
Unidentified Man: We have sold probably 300 in the last two to three days. She just ordered new ones in today, and they're going fast.
FEIDT: Falling ash could also make the roads slippery for cars and clog air filtration systems. It would look like a gray snowstorm; a sad sight in a city that would love a white one instead. For NPR News in Anchorage, I'm Annie Feidt.
SIEGEL: And you can see photos of the Augustine volcano eruption at our Web site, npr.org.
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