Machines to Collect Data on Ash in Kodiak from Spring to Fall

Geologist Kristi Wallace stands beside particulate monitor. Kayla Desroches/KMXT
Geologist Kristi Wallace stands beside particulate monitor. Kayla Desroches/KMXT

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

Researchers are trying to determine whether strong winds blowing over the Valley of 10,000 Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula can transport dangerous amounts of ash into the Kodiak environment. To help them collect data, they’ll turn to a pair of particulate monitors they set up last week – one on Coast Guard property and another in Larsen Bay. KMXT’s Kayla Desroches went with geologist Kristi Wallace to visit the monitor located near the Kodiak base.

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The particulate monitor, with its metal head and tripod legs, looks like a robotic scarecrow. Wallace opens the door to the main compartment and inside is a pump, the source of the puttering sound.

“It’s preferentially sucking in particles that are fine-grained, so that can be respired into the human lung. So, basically the size is about the thickness of a human hair, so really, really, really tiny. So, it’s preferentially sucking particles that fall out of the sky. It could be road dust, could be fire, in my case I’m interested in volcanic ash, but it could be anything.”

She says those particles end up on a length of tape, which researchers can examine using a microscope. She says the strip mostly takes in volcanic ash, which contains tiny glass shards.

Not only can too much ash threaten air quality, but Wallace explains glass particles melt at jet-operating temperatures and can shut down plane engines.

But is that a problem in Kodiak?

Wallace says in the windier and drier months of spring, summer, and sometimes fall, Kodiak still gets hit by ash leftover from the Alaska Peninsula’s 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption, the 20th century’s largest eruption.

“The ash is picked up by these wind events and re-suspended into a cloud that, for all intents and purposes looks just like an eruption cloud, so looks like an ash cloud although we know it’s not from an eruption. And those clouds are then dispersed and carried over Shelikof Strait to Kodiak and into the Gulf of Alaska.”

Wallace says they set up particulate monitors in Kodiak last fall. She says they collected data between September and November and recorded three small events.

She says they plan to leave the particulate monitors up longer this time and researchers are trying to determine how much glass is in the ash clouds, whether the ash is hurting air quality, and whether it poses a danger to aviation.

“We also want to better understand, when we see a satellite image, what is that really telling us? Sometimes we look at them and say oh, there’s not much ash in the cloud, we don’t get a good ash signature, and so maybe there’s not gonna be fallout in Kodiak, but we found out in the fall deployment that when we saw a satellite image with a very small concentration of ash, it actually did fall out in Kodiak, so it’s helping us to better interpret satellite imagery.”

So far, Wallace says the ash does not appear to be hazardous to people on the ground. As for aircraft, she says the United States Geological Survey and the National Weather Service work together to pinpoint ash clouds and issue warnings.

“So that aviators can steer clear of those clouds when they’re happening, and they do happen in Kodiak anywhere from one to seven times a year, probably over the last 100 years, so it’s a very common occurrence, but usually there’s a low concentration of ash in these clouds, so it’s not a significant hazard we don’t think to the island, but certainly to aviation it is.”

Wallace says they’ll use the monitors this year to gather the full spectrum of data from spring, through summer, and into fall. In other word, they’ll gather the beginning, the middle, and the end of Kodiak’s ash fall story.

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