Two Remote Volcano Sensors Resume Sending Seismic Data

Scientists are now able to monitor two remote volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula after equipment came back to life this spring.

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The Peulik  volcano and Ukinrek Maars are located about 70 miles south of King Salmon. Scientists thought that sensors there died over the winter. Jeff Freymueller is a Professor at The University of Alaska Fairbanks and is the Coordinating Scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

“We know that those stations have suffered physical damage, we know that bears have ripped down doors off enclosures.  It looked like they were down and not coming back.  What actually happened over the last few weeks is that they’ve began coming back,” Freymueller said. “That really means that they were down because the  power had failed.  Now the snow is melting and the sun is out, those stations are actually on power and are transmitting data.”

It’s been decades since either volcano showed signs of activity. The Peulik  volcano last erupted in 1814. But radar decades ago showed magma rising to within several kilometers of the surface. Ukinrek Maars  has been quiet since only 1977 when the two vents erupted and formed deep craters. Scientists want to know what’s happening at the two volcanoes. Freymueller said they rely on that seismic data to provide early warnings.

“Quite often one of the first indications of volcanic unrest is small swarms of small earthquakes.  Having the network there means that if those occur, we can see them and those are likely to among the first precursors to potential activity.  If the volcano were to start to actually erupt, we’d see volcanic tremor and other sub signals just like we’re seeing now on Pavlof.  We can see that if we have seismic stations close to the volcano, but we can’t if there’s not data from close in,” said Freymueller.

The observatory is used to remote stations periodically failing, but the network’s health has suffered over the past few years. Of the observatory’s 200 stations, almost half are out of commission this month.

“When we actually had everything properly maintained, it was not so much of a worry. It was pretty rare that the number of working instruments would get down to the threshold where you wonder if you’re able to catch things.   It’s something we’re starting to have to worry about more and more.  I  expect that this time next year we’re going probably see higher percentages of things not working.  Simply because the amount of maintenance we can do this summer is very limited.  Limited maintenance now means more failures down the road,” said Freymueller.

The network relies on funding from Congress, which Freymueller said has not kept pace with maintenance needs.

“Either that changes because the budget goes up, or we’re have to pull back and reduce the number of volcanoes we monitor and fall back on the highest priority ones. Either because they’re the most dangerous, most eruptive or because they pose hazards to people on the ground,” said Freymueller.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory monitors more than 20 volcanoes across the state.  Two are currently on watch alert: the Pavlof and Cleveland volcanoes.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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