Alaska Volcano Eruption 2017: Expert Explains Why Predicting When Bogoslof Volcano Will Erupt Is Tricky

Volcanic eruptions are among the most fearsome and devastating forces on our planet. They have been known to bury entire towns and cities with searing hot lava, cause massive widespread destruction with the accompanying earthquakes, and trigger mega tsunamis that could wipe out the lives of tens of thousands of victims.

Yet, the threat they pose is conveniently tucked somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind, perhaps because people don’t usually see a volcano erupting every day. Which is why the recent eruption of a volcano in Alaska caught everyone by surprise; there simply was no prior warning that it was about to happen.

Alaska Volcano Erupts Without Warning

Last week, the Alaska Volcano Observatory announced that a volcano in Alaska erupted, sending ash clouds high up in the air, CNN reported. Located in the Aleutian Islands, the Bogoslof Volcano erupted at 2:16 p.m. last May 28, 2017, which lasted for around 50 minutes.

The volcanic eruption sent clouds of ashes into the atmosphere reaching as high as 35,000 feet. As a result, an Aviation Color Code Red took effect, the highest level in aviation, due to the potential danger the ash clouds could pose to jet engines of airliners.

With the vulnerability of jet engines to volcanic ash, eruptions have disrupted air traffic in the past. For instance, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in Iceland temporarily crippled air travel in Europe, affecting as many as tens of thousands of flights. Fortunately, no further emissions from the Alaskan volcano have been observed and the alert level was subsequently lowered to orange.

Predicting Volcanic Eruptions

With the help of modern equipment and technologies, the U.S. Geological Survey can tell days or even months in advance if a volcano is about to erupt. According to Scientific American, the signs include sulfurous gases and increased seismic activity indicating that magma is about to breach the surface.

However, the May 2017 eruption of the Bogoslof Volcano in Alaska came without warning. In fact, it now appears that the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) is having a hard time predicting that particular volcano. Of the 40 eruptions that occurred since December 2016, AVO managed to accurately predict only 25 percent of the incidents.

It has something to do with its location and the size of the island, according to AVO research geologist Michelle Coombs in an interview with Scientific American. Simply put, the island is too small that it would be a waste if monitoring equipment were to be placed there and it is too far away to be effectively covered by the nearest sensors.

“Bogoslof is a tiny island, less than one kilometer across, and 50 kilometers away from the nearest island with monitoring equipment,” Coombs answered when asked if there is a way to tell imminent eruption.

“It’s a very sensitive area for marine wildlife; it’s a seabird and marine mammal habitat, and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [FWS] wilderness area. Even if we had put instruments directly on Bogoslof prior to December, they would simply have been destroyed because the island is so small.”

However, AWO has a way to track ongoing eruptions as part of their monitoring efforts. In the case of last week’s eruption, Coombs revealed that the observatory had to get creative to get abreast of things. They used hydrophones to monitor seismic waves moving through the water column. In addition, they also employed infrasound sensors and lightning sensors to measure sound waves during explosions and detect volcanic lightning respectively.

With the system in place, Coombs assures that AWO is responsive to threats future eruptions may pose to air travel. AWO receives automated text message from the array of sensors in place that will be quickly looked into by a trained analyst. Within minutes, AWO can notify the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the National Weather Service, should the situation become a cause of concern for air safety.

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