CYRUS READ ’94
I have been at the AVO for about five years now. My title here is Geophysicist, but my day to day duties are more engineering oriented than geology or physics based. Along with two others, I am responsible for installing and maintaining the approximately 180 monitoring stations that span 1700 miles of the northern ring of fire. Since there are no roads in these areas and our stations are mostly located high on the flanks of the 46 active volcanoes in Alaska, all our work requires helicopters and sometimes boats to access the stations we maintain. The maintenance on these stations is extensive due to a number of factors including extreme weather, bears and other creatures that like to play with or just plain destroy anything foreign in their landscape and eruptions which burn, smash or strike with lightning everything that surrounds the volcanoes.
Our monitoring stations include seismometers which tell us how the ground is shaking, GPS receivers which tell us if the volcano is inflating or deflating as magma moves into chambers underneath it , cameras, pressure sensors and lightning detector s that tell us when explosions occur and if there’s an ash cloud full of static electricity in the area . These stations are powered with solar panels and send real time data back to us in Anchorage through radio and satellite transmissions. Earthquakes or deformation signals picked up by our seismometers and GPS receivers will typically increase in magnitude and frequency prior to eruptions and will blend together to form what is called volcanic tremor, where the ground consistently vibrates for a period of hours to days just prior to eruption. This allows us at the AVO to give warning to surrounding communities and air traffic of the impending explosion, which can produce pyroclastic flows, lahars (hot mud flows) and ash clouds that reach as high as 60,000 ft. If air traffic encounters these clouds, the ash particles will melt into the engines causing engine failure. The great circle air route between North America and Asia crosses over the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula so on any given day, 20,000 people and a lot of cargo fly over our volcanoes. Once a volcano erupts, we alert the Federal Aviation Administration about the time of eruption and trajectory of the ash cloud so all air traffic in the area can be rerouted around the potential hazard .
My favorite part of this job is working in a little known part of our country that is still truly wild. The landscapes are young and exposed revealing the raw forces that shape our planet. The wildlife is healthy and unaffected by human influence and the few people in most these areas are mostly indigenous and live a subsistence lifestyle. When volcanoes do erupt, particularly when it happens close to population centers like in the eruption of Redoubt Volcano this past spring or Augustine Volcano in 2005, our organization steps up to
24/7 monitoring and deals with not only the FAA, but FEMA, DOD, state and local governments, the National Weather Service and many others. This makes for exciting and diverse work for all involved that is, at times, rather high profile. Our website www.avo.alaska.edu had up to 10 million hits per day during the explosive phase of the Redoubt eruption this spring, and we were routinely interviewed on CNN, NPR, and other news agencies.
When I was a student at WMS, I used to dream of going to Alaska because of the pictures I’d seen of the expansive, glaciated landscapes and the sense of being somewhere wild. The Alaska I have found has exceeded any expectations of even a young Montessori mind.