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When Mt. Redoubt erupts, these scientists are on the job

For them, 'volcano monitoring' is no punch line; it's an important part of keeping Alaska safe.

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The AVO's 2008 budget was about $7.5 million, of which some $2.6 million came from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Tom Murray, the scientist in charge at the AVO. In addition, the organization will receive about $7 million in federal stimulus funds, Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska announced Friday.

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The AVO staff numbers 66, plus graduate students. But during this 24/7 period, it has pulled in scientists from other volcano observatories in the US to help out.

The AVO provides warnings and forecasts to the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation organizations about conditions in the skies over Alaska. Four volcanoes lie near Anchorage and its airport, the world's third-busiest air-cargo handler.

"Any airplane that takes off from the continental United States and flies to Asia flies right over the Alaska Aleutian volcanoes," says Power.

Alaska's volcanoes pose little direct threat to lives of people on the ground, but there have been close calls. A flank collapse at Augustine Volcano in 1883 caused what is believed to have been a local tsunami that hit a nearby Native village. Two US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had to be rescued last summer from a shaking Kasatochi Island while that volcano was tossing chunks of rocks into the air. The only likely fatality from an Alaska volcano came during World War II, when a soldier disappeared on the Aleutian island that holds Cleveland Volcano, Power says. The soldier's fate has never been determined with certainty, he says.

While AVO scientists strive to provide forecasts and warnings, they are also working to piece together Alaska's geologic story. As Redoubt erupts, the scientists have been studying its sulfur-dioxide and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Close-up examinations of emitted material are the job of geologist Kristi Wallace, a self-described "tephra queen." In the AVO's tephra laboratory, the burned smell of sulfur permeates, and Ms. Wallace sorts through samples of ash and newly formed "juvenile" rock collected from Redoubt. She is intrigued by ice crystals within the ash expelled during this cycle's early eruptions. They reveal something about the volcano's characteristics, but Wallace is struggling to keep the ice-laden samples intact so that she can figure out exactly what.

"I just brought some home and put them in the freezer, next to all the salmon," she says.

For all the troubles they cause, Alaska's smoldering volcanoes offer some potential benefits – namely, nonpolluting energy. The state last year auctioned off geothermal leases at Mt. Spurr, a volcano on Anchorage's skyline, for $3.5 million. The Legislature is considering a system of financial incentives to encourage more geothermal investment.

And gardeners here swear by ash as a miracle fertilizer for the short but intense growing season. There have been no definitive studies, but Power says that might be more than a suburban myth. "Tropical areas surrounding volcanic regions are usually pretty fertile," he says.