New equipment helps scientists keep tabs on Bogoslof now and study it later

Bogoslof island has changed dramatically since the volcano started erupting in late 2016. (Max Kaufman/Alaska Volcano Observatory/University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute)

Scientists have had a hard time monitoring Bogoslof volcano since it started erupting in December. The island is so small, there is no equipment on the volcano, making it difficult to predict eruptions.

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No one lives on Bogoslof – the closest human neighbors are 60 miles away in Unalaska. Scientists monitor from afar and they’ve had a lot to monitor lately. The volcano has erupted more than 40 times since December.

Geophysicist John Lyons said there aren’t many volcanoes like Bogoslof in the world so he doesn’t want to miss anything.

“The interesting thing about the eruption at Bogoslof is that it’s happening underwater and then the eruption breaks the surface and goes into the atmosphere,” Lyons said.

Lyons installed two hydrophones underwater near the island — they’re essentially microphones that listen and record seismic waves during an eruption.

“Right now, we can only detect the most energetic activity from the volcano,” Lyons said. “So hopefully with these two instruments that are much closer we’ll be able to detect, understand, and study the eruption in much more detail.”

Lyons said these recordings are unprecedented. Because the hydrophones are so close to the island and in the water column, they’re especially good at registering the low level activity at Bogoslof that the faraway monitoring network has missed. He’ll have to wait a while to study them, since the hydrophones don’t transmit their data.

But there’s another piece of equipment volcanologist Alexa Van Eaton installed that will help right away – they track lightning, including volcanic lightning, which happens when static electricity builds up in ash clouds.

“Unlike ground shaking and unlike acoustic energy that can happen when there’s not a lot of ash getting into the atmosphere, lightning is unique to ash,” Van Eaton said. “That’s relevant because it’s important to aviation hazards and communities like Dutch Harbor which could be downwind.”

The new sensors are part of a global lightning system called the World Wide Lightning Location Network. The stronger network makes it easier to warn pilots that eruptions are underway. And it could help scientists understand if lightning at Bogoslof means there’s a lot of ash in the atmosphere and planes should avoid the area.

For now, the scientists are relishing every bit of eruptive activity at Bogoslof. The more it erupts, the more they can learn.