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Scientists monitoring restless Alaska volcano after ash plume

By Reuters
Saturday, December 31, 2011 10:49 EDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Scientists were watching a remote Alaska volcano on Friday, a day after it belched out an ash cloud that quickly dissipated, and officials said airline flights over the region had not been disrupted.

Ash from the 5,676-foot volcano is considered potentially dangerous to aircraft because Cleveland’s peak lies directly below commercial flight paths between Asia and North America. Another ash-producing explosion could come without warning.

Thursday’s explosion at the Cleveland Volcano in the Aleutian Islands sent a plume 15,000 feet into the air, but it dissipated within hours, said Cheryl Searcy, a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

“It was a pretty small little burp out of it,” Searcy said. “As of now, we have not had any more of those.”

The volcano, located 940 miles southwest of Anchorage in a remote area where scientists lack on-site monitoring instruments, sent ash clouds as high as 39,000 feet in 2001.

“So it is possible that it really can put a major plume” into the atmosphere, Searcy said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said all airlines with operations in the U.S. northwest were notified of the eruption, but he was not aware of any planes being diverted or deviating from flight plans as a result.

He noted that commercial airplanes typically fly above 15,000 feet, the level of the ash plume. Officials from United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines said there were no disruptions to their flights.

Cleveland, on the uninhabited Chuginadak Island, is one of Alaska’s 90 active volcanoes and has been in an eruptive phase since July, when lava started oozing out of the crater and forming a hardened dome. Scientists keep tabs on the mountain with satellite data, eyewitness reports and video from mariners and pilots.

Thursday’s explosion, captured by satellite imagery, likely stemmed from a gradual buildup of pressure during months of intermittent low-level eruptions, another geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Dave Schneider, has said.

Interference with air travel is the most immediate risk posed by Alaskan volcanoes, as jet engines are vulnerable to damage and sudden failure if they suck in gritty volcanic dust.

A KLM airliner abruptly dropped more than 14,000 feet when it flew through ash belched into the atmosphere from an eruption of the Mount Redoubt volcano, just west of Cook Inlet, in 1989. The badly damaged jet landed in Anchorage.

Elsewhere, an ash cloud from a Chilean volcano grounded flights across eastern and southern Australia in June. The eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 2010 led to 100,000 canceled flights, hampering the air travel of some 10 million people.

(Additional reporting by Kyle Peterson: Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston )

Mochila insert follows.

Reuters
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