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Sled dogs slide by vigorous volcanoes

February 16, 2014 - 12:05am

While most football fans have recovered from Super Bowl XLVIII, the most exciting time of year is just beginning for sled-dog-racing enthusiasts. As this article goes to press, the final finishers of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest sled-dog race will have traversed the rugged Alaskan interior and crossed the finish line in Yukon, Canada.

Just around the corner, the Super Bowl of sled-dog racing, the Iditarod, is scheduled to begin its run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, in unseasonably warm temperatures and marginal snow conditions. This premier event of the sled-dog-racing world commemorates a life-saving dog-sled transport of anti-diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925.

Sled-dog racers are familiar with the myriad challenges that nature can deliver as they mush their way through whiteouts, blizzards, and minus-40 degree temperatures. This year, with less than two weeks until race time, the warm temperatures and lack of snow has put the Iditarod route in limbo. Organizers may have to relocate the starting line 350 miles north to Fairbanks, where there is better snow for the 1,100-mile crossing to Nome.

While weather can play a starring role in sled-dog racing, other forces of nature exert their influence, as well. In early 2009, as Iditarod mushers and their dogs were busy training for the event, the specter of volcanic eruption loomed over the race preparations.

In the fall of 2008, seismicity at Redoubt Volcano, located about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, had begun to increase. Volcanic unrest escalated over the ensuing months, suggesting that an eruption was likely. Prior eruptions of this frequently active Cook Inlet volcano had caused extensive damage, so Redoubt’s rumblings had to be taken seriously.

For instance, the 1989-1990 Redoubt eruption was the second most costly in the history of the United States. During a six-month period, 23 major explosive events blasted ash plumes as high as 45,000 feet into the atmosphere. Airborne ash poses a threat to aircraft, as it can diminish visibility, damage flight control systems, and cause jet engines to fail. Heavy ash fall affects communities by collapsing roofs and causing health symptoms in exposed populations.

During the Redoubt eruption, five commercial jetliners were damaged by ash, and tragedy was narrowly averted when a KLM 747 passenger jet inadvertently flew through an ash plume and lost power to all four of its engines. While the pilot managed to eventually restart the plane, the event was a wake-up call that helped set the stage to address aviation safety during volcanic eruptions worldwide.

Airports in Anchorage and to the southeast on the Kenai Peninsula were closed for several days, and drifting ash clouds disrupted air traffic as far away as Texas. The eruption also had an impact on the Alaska oil industry, causing a temporary shutdown of some operations. Schools were closed in downwind communities, and sensitive individuals experienced respiratory problems.

In 2009, the seismic activity of Redoubt again was escalating and concern mounted that the March 8 start of the Iditarod would be disrupted by an eruption. Race contenders close to the volcano were daunted by the potential of having to evacuate hundred-dog kennels to a safe, ash-free area, where they could continue to train their canine athletes for the demanding endurance event.

As it turned out, Redoubt began its 2009 sequence of eruptions a week after the mushers were on their way to Nome. During a three-week period, 19 major ash-producing explosions generated clouds reaching heights between 17,000 and 62,000 feet above sea level. During ash falls in Anchorage, the international airport was closed, and most air travel in south central Alaska was disrupted.

With more than 90 volcanoes that might be expected to erupt again in the future, volcanic activity will continue to impact the natural and human environment in Alaska. We wish the 2014 Iditarod competitors a safe and memorable journey through the beautiful Alaskan landscape, in which volcanoes play an important role. More information on Alaskan volcanoes and ash hazards can be found at

Kilauea activity update

A lava lake within Halemaumau produced nighttime glow visible via HVO’s webcam during the past week. The lava level rose slightly and was about 130 feet below the rim of the overlook vent.

On Kilauea’s east rift zone, the Kahaualea 2 flow continued to be active northeast of Puu Oo. After the flow front stalled two weeks ago 4.8 miles northeast of Puu Oo, surface flows have been active behind the stalled flow front, up to 4.5 miles northeast of Puu Oo. Webcam images indicate that small forest fires are continuing.

There were no earthquakes reported felt on Hawaii Island in the past week.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.