Ash Fall

Mt. Redoubt is quiet now. It seems almost unbelievable after more than two weeks of almost constant eruptions. Occasionally, a patch of blue shows among the yellow, ash dusted clouds. During these rare intervals, you can sometimes hear the drone of a plane. It sounds almost musical in a sky that had always been industrious with air traffic but had recently lapsed into prolonged silences.

Since the first explosion of the strato-volcano, Alaska has been held in a state of seize. Redoubt, who had been simmering for three months; keeping citizens on alert for so long they lost interest, made her first announcement March 21st. Within twenty-four hours, the volcano erupted four more times, the fifth one sending an ash cloud 60,000 feet. The personnel at the Ted Stevens International Airport were not immediately alarmed, although they canceled nineteen flights and diverted others from the potential dangers. Most flights continued as scheduled. Strong winds carried the ash cloud away, settling it mainly in the small town of Talkeetna, three hundred miles north of the volcano. Within the next few days, Redoubt erupted six more times, each time with less force. The Alaskan Volcanic Observatory moved the code conditions from red to orange, believing Mt. Redoubt had finally settled down.

On March 26th., the day after two minor blasts led scientists to believe the volcano had gone from boiling to simmering, and changed their “warning” to “watch”, Redoubt came to life again. After an initial rumble, a huge explosion 50 minutes later sent ash soaring 65,000 feet above sea level — more than 12 miles high — topping all prior eruptions since the Cook Inlet volcano burst to life the previous Sunday. Alaska Airlines cancelled their flights for the rest of the day, announcing they’d make re-adjustments the following morning. Other airlines followed suit, canceling or diverting flights with cautious messages about when they would resume. Although no ash was expected to settle on Anchorage, by late afternoon, it had received a light dusting. Reports came in from Homer and Kenai that they were heavily coated with a layer of ash that soon spread its way across the entire Kenai Peninsula and into the Prince William Sound. Following the second explosion at 9:24 a.m., a seismometer positioned on the ground east of the volcano’s summit recorded the signal of a large mud flow, called a lahar, AVO geophysicist Stephanie Prejean said. The Weather Service subsequently issued a flash flood warning for the Drift River, which connects the Drift Glacier on the east slope of Redoubt to Cook Inlet, 27 miles downstream.
Red lettering shows location of Redoubt
The announcement placed the Cook Oil Refinery immediately on alert. Across the bay, located on the flood plain of the Drift River, millions of dollars worth of crude oil waited in a terminal to be barged to the facility. Redoubt’s activities left no opportunity for tankers to attempt the crossing and retrieve the oil. As the rumblings persisted, the dangers increased, the hot steam and lava flow melting the ice holding back the river and creating huge, steaming fissures in the glacier. Still, the dikes surrounding the terminal stayed firm and the barrels of oil remained safe.

By March 31st. Redoubt had erupted eighteen times. The haze that had begun as scattered ash clouds raining down in selected areas, engulfed Alaska from South Central to Fairbanks, Kodiak; in the Aleutians to the Panhandle; drifting eventually into Seattle. Enough ash fall collected in Anchorage to close all flights and in Kodiak, the fishing boats were stranded, unwilling to risk ash damage to their engines. Thirty-year-old Jesse Lemmens, left on a flight out of Anchorage the evening of Redoubt’s last eruption. He was on his way to Seattle to finish up his studies in culinary skills. Midway through flight, the plane was forced to land in Juneau to clean its engines. Jesse and the small group of other students were put up in a crowded hotel for the evening. It was late. They were hungry. They scouted around town but nothing was open. They finally found a small diner that advertised a Continental breakfast. The breakfast consisted of coffee and bagels.

Early next morning they were back on their plane, although this time, they only made it as far as Ketchikan before the plane had to stop and clean the ash from its engines again. This time, there was no hotel room. They sat in the plane, staring hungrily out the windows. They landed in Seattle just in time to dash off to their class. A table of refreshments waited for them. Eagerly they descended and discovered; bagels.

April second; only gas and steam continued to escape from Redoubt. For three days, frozen ash blizzards and sulphuric clouds had been traveling along the Cook Inlet Range. Everywhere your eye could travel, the landscape was bleak and grey. The taste of ash filled every throat and the smell of sulphuric gasses had become common place. A group of friends huddled and exchanged stories in a small community store. The oil workers were tired. They had been scheduled to return for three days out on the fields of the Prudhoe Bay, and hadn’t been able to book a flight. This evening, they were assured, they’d be able take the red-eye flight provided there were no further eruptions.

A local man, on business dealings in Portland, spent four days in Seattle waiting for his flight to Anchorage. He had just returned, looking a little strained, but happy. “They were just shoving everyone into hotel rooms,” he explained. “Not especially good ones; just anywhere they could squeeze people in on short notice. I got stuck in a hotel room with three students. There were other students crammed into the rooms all up and down the hall. The noise of their coming and going never ended. I didn’t have to pay for it. I had all those days in Seattle with a free room, but I didn’t get much sleep.”

By April third, Redoubt had settled down enough to once again change the volcanic advisory status from warning to watch. Air traffic resumed, although the fishing boats remained in the harbor. A dome has begun forming near the top of the crater from the lava overflow, which means at some point another explosion could be triggered once the dome collapses. On April fourth, reaffirming a growing suspicion that just as it had exhibited explosive activity during its 1989 and 1990 eruptions, it could continue venting its ash, steam and furious rock projectiles for months.

The April fourth explosion caved the Drift Glacier, melting huge portions of it to join the Drift River, now completely free of ice. The terminal flooded, although the barrels of oil, sheltered within the massive steel walls of its containers, remained safe. The Cook Inlet facility hastily made plans to remove the oil with the first lull in Redoubt’s activities. On April sixth, the tanker Seabulk Arctic took on 3.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Drift River terminal, reducing the potential magnitude of an oil spill should nearby Redoubt volcano generate a catastrophic flood. The Cook Inlet facility, uncertain of its future, announced a temporary shut-down.

The shutdown is similar to what happened during the 1989-1990 eruption of Redoubt, but with a few major differences. Production was much more robust at the now-aging fields, and 38 million gallons of crude were stored at Drift River when the tank farm flooded back then. The shutdown lasted about a week.

Only 6.2 million gallons were in tanks at Drift River on March 22, the start of the current series of explosions. Despite a major flood of water and mud that came down the Drift River March 23, a dike built in 1990 kept the tank farm dry. The dike withstood later floods too, including the one following Saturday’s major volcanic explosion.

The world looks at volcanic explosions as a natural disaster. Alaskans don’t quite see it that way. The volcanic ridge, lined up like soldiers, continuously growling, is located on the opposite side of the yawning, wide-mouthed inlet where the majority of the small towns and settlements are located. While the strato- volcanoes are quite violent, hurtling pyroplastic materials for miles, scattering ash and sulphuric gasses for hundreds of miles, a huge body of water protects them from direct harm. Said a Kenai resident, after an ash fall covered the town with several inches of volcanic dust, “I suppose the biggest problem around here is respiratory ones. People, especially the elderly and those who already suffer from respiratory diseases, are encouraged to stock up on paper face masks. I insist that my grandmother use one every time the volcano blows. But I don’t see this as a natural disaster. I think the greater disasters are the ones that occur in the cities, where hundreds of homes are wiped out through floods, earthquakes or fires. That’s a real tragedy. That’s the kind of thing that makes your heart ache.”

Said another resident, “My biggest hardship right now is in stocking up on panty hose to wrap as a filter for my car engine. Most of the stores have already sold out. If she’s going to erupt all summer, I want to be prepared.. Do the volcanoes frighten me? No. We knew when we settled here, we were settling across from the ring of fire. As soon as Redoubt stops grumbling, another one will start up; Spur or Augustine. That’s what they do. We just wait for the ash to settle, than dust ourselves off and go about our daily business.”

The Native Communities, whose settlements across the bay from Kenai and Homer, are respectfully removed from the pathways of the volcanoes’ wrath, chuckle at the large industries and businesses trying to maintain a foothold on the volcanic rim for natural resource development, for their endeavors. “We knew long ago you don’t try the patience of the volcanoes. Their land is sacred. I guess all those developers are learning what Redoubt can do once she starts huffing and puffing.”

The greatest worries are over Alaska’s already floundering fishing industry, its greatest renewable resource and the backbone of the coastal towns. The boats will not be able to go out in ash strewn waters. Continued eruptions change the tide tables, driving the fish away from their normal estuaries. The fishing season looks grim at a time when subsistence foods are needed the most.

The economy, which also has a large base in tourism, had already braced itself over a forty percent loss in flight bookings. With no guarantee of when they could be open for business and when they could not, the airlines; and the tourist trade in general; are taking a dim look at the summer.

The oil industry, during its shut-down of Cook Inlet holdings, is experiencing a loss of about $46,000 per day in royalties, based on Monday’s oil prices. But the loss of royalties is a minor issue compared to the overall safety, environment, work force and production concerns revolving around Drift River and the erupting volcano, said Kevin Banks, director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ oil and gas division.

The people talk quietly about Redoubt, as though the wrong words could provoke more ire. They speculate on whether the volcano will finally settle down, or if it will, as it has been known to do in the past, vent periodic bouts of fury all summer. They mourn for the fishing industry which has already taken some staggering financial blows and may find no relief in sight this year. They wonder how much a prolonged spell of episodic eruptions will affect commerce, transportation and food production. They inch their lives ahead, a little at a time, looking at the skies. They know a year of hardship could be in store for them, but they are no strangers to hardship. “We’ve been through this before,” most Alaskans observe quietly. “We’ll go through it again. You just pick yourself up and start over. That’s what it means to be an Alaskan.”