Anyone with an Internet connection and a computer can peer into the steaming summit of an erupting volcano without risking death, thanks to about 30 cameras and other recording devices set up on Alaska's Augustine Volcano.
ANCHORAGE Want to peer into the steaming summit of an erupting volcano without risking death?
Anyone with an Internet connection and a computer can do just that, thanks to about 30 cameras and other recording devices set up on Alaska's Augustine Volcano that are streaming information to a Web site hosted by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint federal-state office.
The site has received over 253 million hits since the start of the year, becoming a popular destination for everyone from scientists to amateur volcano buffs who want to keep tabs on the restless 4,134-foot volcano.
"The Web has really revolutionized information dissemination and consequently the level of interest and knowledge of the public," said Shan de Silva, a volcanologist and professor at the University of North Dakota.
Augustine Volcano, on an uninhabited island about 175 miles southwest of Anchorage, roared to life on Jan. 11 with an explosion that shot ash miles into the air. It sits under a major air travel route between Asia and North America.
The volcano has remained active since then with a series of ash-producing explosions but has settled into a period of less-dramatic lava burbling, dome building and occasional small ash puffs.
For scientists, Augustine provides a near-perfect combination of factors.
It is close to population centers, but not so close that it poses any serious risks. Its flanks and summit are dotted with more monitoring instruments than perhaps any U.S. volcano except Mt. St. Helens in Washington and Mauna Loa in Hawaii.
"It's a new way of monitoring volcanoes now, but this is going to be kind of the standard way of doing it," said Chris Waythomas, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist who works at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
CHOCK FULL OF INFORMATION
The plethora of seismic information flowing out of the volcano provided scientists with plenty of warning about what was going to happen well before the initial January eruption.
"It happened a little sooner than we thought, but we weren't surprised that it happened," said Waythomas.
There are real-time photographic images, seismic graphs, data from thermal sensors, satellite images and photographs taken by scientists who fly over the peak at least a couple times a week and occasionally land on it -- all displayed on the observatory's Web page.
The most popular features on the site are images from a Web camera perched on the volcano's east side and other photographs, said observatory officials.
The only nagging problems have been periodic buildups of ice and snow on the camera's lens and bad weather that sometimes limits overflights.
For scientists, the detailed images provide a bounty of information about this extended eruptive phase to help study the nature of the magma rising out of Augustine and the incremental changes to the volcano's summit dome.
Among the site's fans are middle school students in Homer, a coastal town across the inlet from Augustine.
Students know the volcano well from their western skyline, yet they have been glued to the computer, said Suzanne Haines, a Homer Middle School geography and history teacher who has incorporated Augustine information into her lessons.
"It's such an amazing resource because the science is fairly easy to understand on the Web site," said Haines, noting that students are so interested due to the volcano's proximity. "It's not something that's far away."
(Additional reporting by Daisuke Wakabayashi in Seattle)