‘Like a nuclear weapon went off’

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

During the volcanic eruptions of 1989 and 1990, locals looking out at Mount Redoubt — the 10,197 foot volcano looming directly across Cook Inlet — saw what looked like an atomic bomb.

John Power, a scientist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory for more than 30 years, said many Kenai Peninsula residents will likely remember the eruption that happened on April 21, 1990, where a nuclear-like cloud hovered above the volcano across the inlet.

This particular eruption happened early in the morning on a very clear day, Power said.

“There was all of the sudden this enormous mushroom cloud over Redoubt,” Power said. “It looked like a nuclear weapon went off. This makes Redoubt the poster child of volcanic ash clouds. This is iconic Alaskan photograph.”

Kenai resident Sammy Crawford was in Anchorage during that April eruption. She was at the Sheraton Hotel for a meeting when she looked out the window and thought, “Oh my God, this is incredible.”

Her husband quickly called her from their home, which was across Cook Inlet from Mount Redoubt. Crawford said her husband took pictures of the event. She said she remembers all of her neighbors calling each other to talk about the eruption they witnessed.

“It really did look like an atomic bomb went off,” Crawford said. “It was such a spectacular sight though. It was a very interesting event. Very Alaskan.”

Starting Dec. 14, 1989, 30 years ago last week, Mount Redoubt erupted. The eruption lasted months and well into the first year of the new decade, 1990.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory is commemorating the event, focusing on the 30th anniversary of this historic eruption through their public outreach and social media feeds, Power said.

Power said the observatory’s public outreach will also tie the historic 1989 eruption to the most recent eruption 10 years ago in 2009, which occurred over a couple months in the springtime.

Power said the 1989 and 1990 Mount Redoubt events were significant to the state of Alaska. He remembers, because he’s been with the observatory since its humble beginnings in 1988, just one year prior to Mount Redoubt’s historic eruption.

“It was a lot to handle at the time,” Power said. “We struggled in 1989 and 1990.”

Power said he remembers the observatory only had a staff of a few people when they first opened in the late 1980s. He said when Mount Redoubt erupted, the observatory was not prepared to deal with the impacts that came with the volcanic event, like having Anchorage’s airport closed for nearly a week and a giant ash cloud.

“It was a very busy time for us — is perhaps a nice way to put it,” Power said. “We worked very hard. We did bring in a lot of personnel from other observatories around the country to help deal with it, although there were difficulties.”

The volcanic event did launch a major expansion of the observatory’s capability to try and address volcano monitoring throughout the state, Power said.

“We went from having skeletal monitoring networks on the four volcanoes that are closest to the big population centers — Augustine, Iliamna, Redoubt and Spur — to move to eventually try and monitor most of the volcanoes in the state, so we can warn over flying jet aircraft of the hazard,” Power said.

The eruption set in motion a number of changes, both statewide and internationally. Stakeholders came together to put together adequate warning systems and measures to deal with volcanic ash, some of which are still used to this day.

“We’ve taken great steps over the last 30 years to try and provide adequate warning,” Power said. “It’s grown quite a bit and we have a lot more capabilities now that we didn’t have at that point in time (1989).”

In 1989, when Mount Redoubt spewed an ash cloud thousands of feet into the sky, a 747 airplane encountered the cloud and lost power in all four of its engines. The flight made an emergency landing in Anchorage. Sweeping protocol changes came next for the international airline community, which frequently flies over Alaska’s very active portion of the Ring of Fire en route to Asia.

“What that set in motion was a long-term effort, international effort, to address the hazard that airborne volcanic ash poses to operation of modern jet aircraft,” Power said.

For the state, the eruption resulted in the closure of an oil terminal at the base of Mount Redoubt.

Power said volcanic ash from the event especially impacted the Kenai Peninsula, where schools closed and residents needed to take special precautions to stay safe.

Sarah Hondel of Soldotna was 12 in 1989. She was in sixth grade at Redoubt Elementary and remembered being released from school, where students had to put on particle masks after “Redoubt blew its top.”

“I remember quite a few of my classmates that were picked up from school by frenzied parents,” Hondel said.

About half an inch of ash fell on an already existing foot of snow, Hondel said. She remembers more snow came after the ash settled, putting a heavy weight on the roofs of homes and buildings.

“My dad, Mark Burdick, remembers that ladies’ nylons were sold out around town, too, because people were wrapping them around their vehicle’s air filters,” Hondel said.

The event resembled an atomic bomb, she said, and was “very impressive,” but that most people understood what was happening and went about their day.

Power says he remembers the eruption well, too. The heavy ash fall that blanketed the Kenai Peninsula had emergency managers at the time scrambling to deal with the impact, he said.

Because instruments had just been installed on Mount Redoubt, the observatory was able to put out an advanced warning on Dec. 13, the night before the first eruption. However, Power said the infrastructure to distribute information back then was lacking.

“We’re very proud of the fact we were able to identify what was going on and put out an advanced warning for the eruption then,” Power said. “Although we just didn’t have the communication. There were a lot of problems in those days. We were a very new organization and I think it took a lot of people by surprise by how invasive that eruption was going to be.”

Power said the observatory, and local residents were a bit more lucky in 2009.

The volcano behaved somewhat differently, then, and there were some very marked precursory activity that the observatory identified, allowing them to get a warning out months in advance that Mount Redoubt was becoming active again, Power said.

The 2009 eruption progressed much faster than the 1989 and 1990 event, Power said, which lasted from Dec. 14 until May of 1990. In 2009, the ash producing portion of the eruption was much shorter and had less of an impact on communities, airports and air traffic.

“I think at that point in time (2009) we were in a much better position to give information about how to deal with the hazard and when the hazard is likely to occur and where it’s going to go,” Power said.

Power said if Mt. Redoubt were to erupt today, residents will receive information where the ash is headed and when it will be there. He said the observatory has much better technology than it did in the 1980s.

“You don’t realize how much we rely on email and web pages until you don’t have them,” Power said. “Things are much better now.”

Since Mount Redoubt has been observed, there have been four eruptions in 1902, 1966, 1989 and 2009.

Accounts of the 1902 eruption as told in Sitka’s newspaper “The Alaskan” tell a story of “flames of fire from the bowels of the earth.” News of the volcanic eruption, which occurred in January 1902, reached Southeast Alaska through a letter from Kenai’s Russian Priest, according to the 1902 newspaper article.

“After the eruption, or during the time there was a terrific earthquake which burst the mountain asunder leaving a large gap, and the flames could be plainly seen from the village,” the article said. “The ground at the town of Kenai was covered with ashes and subsequently a tidal wave came in which did much damage. The water in the inlet rose to a great height and terror reigned throughout the village. The mountain was still smoking at the time the letter was written and occasionally large quantities of lava thrown there from.”

To learn more about Mount Redoubt, other nearby volcanoes or the Alaska Volcano Observatory, visit their website at avo.alaska.edu

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