NOAA’s Eyes on Erupting Volcanoes

Volcanic ash cloud.

Volcanic ash cloud.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Mention the phrase “volcanic eruption” and images of ferocious explosions, dramatic fireworks, and rolling plumes of thick ash and smoke reaching miles into the sky, come to mind.

Eruptions from Mt. St. Helens in Washington State, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, or the soft glow of lava oozing from Kilauea in Hawaii are spectacular examples of this geological phenomenon. Every volcano has a personality all its own and gives us a unique opportunity to witness nature's unbridled power.

It’s a humbling sight. But ask anyone in NOAA’s Washington and Anchorage  Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC) and they’ll tell you that tracking volcanic eruptions and the direction of airborne ash plumes are all part of a day’s work.

NOAA's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers

Last year, the VAACs issued 1,637 advisories for volcanoes from the Mariana Islands in the west Pacific Ocean, Alaska, Hawaii, and all of Central and South America.

The Washington VAAC, based in Camp Springs, Md., sends out advisory messages, which are used by the airlines, aviation community, weather forecast offices, foreign governments, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Things can get pretty busy around here, that’s for sure,” said Grace Swanson, a meteorologist and manager of the Washington VAAC. “Volcanic ash is a serious hazard to aviation, and pilots need the most current information to avoid danger from the ash clouds.”

Volcanic eruption.

Example of volcanic eruption.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Eruption Off Alaska Coast

On August 7, the Kasatochi volcano in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska erupted, sending a thick plume of ash at least 35,000 feet into the atmosphere. And prompting Alaska Airlines to cancel 41 flights because of the dangerous ash and gases (downlaod amination in QuickTime [MP4]).

But the VAAC’s job doesn’t end with monitoring volcanoes. The staff also monitors tropical cyclone activity and provides analysis of smoke from wildfires throughout North America. 

Just this month, the VAACs were swamped fielding calls from airlines and the FAA while monitoring the ash from the Kasatochi eruption, as well as watching two developing tropical systems in the Atlantic Ocean and four in the East Pacific Ocean.  

Real-Time Data Around the Clock

The Washington and Anchorage VAACs operate around the clock and are staffed by a team of meteorologists, physical scientists, and image analysts who use various NOAA satellite data and products to detect ash injection into the atmosphere.

Washington VAAC team monitors latest developments.

Washington VAAC team monitors latest developments.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

In addition to satellites, the staff use information from meteorological weather offices, volcano observatories, pilot reports, observations from ground-based sensors, and even real-time “web cams” pointed at the active volcanoes to maintain a constant watch for any type of activity that could lead to an eruption.

Along with the text advisory, the VAACs use image enhancement techniques to isolate the geographic coverage of the ash, draw outlines of the ash clouds, and then transmit the graphic images to customers.

 The VAACs also uses high-resolution computer model simulations to provide guidance of where the ash will travel for up to 18 hours after the initial eruption.

The Washington VAAC is a joint effort between NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service and NOAA’s National Weather Service. It’s one of nine global centers that detect, monitor, and analyze volcanic ash clouds as well as the cloud’s directional heading.  

NOAA operates both the Washington VAAC and the Anchorage VAAC, part of the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit. NOAA logo.