Drooling over Pictures of Pavlof Volcano from Space

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 23 2013 11:05 AM

Drooling over Pictures of Pavlof Volcano from Space          

The Pavlof volcano sits in the long, long chain of the Aleutian Islands off the west coast of Alaska, and is one of the most active volcanoes in the United States. It’s about seven kilometers (4 miles) across and 2500 meters (1.5 miles) high. After being quiet since 2007, it started erupting again on May 13, 2013.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

A few days later, on May 18, astronauts aboard the International Space Station had this amazing view of the event:

Pavlof volcano
Does the name Pavlof ring a bell? Click to hephaestenate.

Photo by NASA

Advertisement

One thing I love about photos of the Earth from ISS is that the astronauts can see things at an oblique angle. Most satellites take pictures straight down and you lose the sense of depth. The astronauts have a wider view, and can see surface features closer to the horizon. This angle can give an incredibly dramatic view like that one.

The plume of ash shot up to a height of six kilometers (almost four miles), and goes a long way. That picture above was taken using a telephoto, but a shorter lens provides a bit of context:

Pavlof volcano from space
The plume from the May 13 eruption of Pavlof extends for hundreds of kilometers.

Photo by NASA.

WOW. The plume extends for hundreds of kilometers, blown by winds to the southeast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plume that long seen so clearly before.

Volcanic ash is a hazard; it’s composed not of smooth dust but of very small grains of rock that can have extremely sharp edges and ridges. Even in small quantities it can choke an airplane engine and damage windshields, so air traffic has to be routed around active volcanoes; Pavlof is creating such a situation now.

Alaska is loaded with volcanoes, many of which are active and hazardous to airplanes and people. Scientists need to observe these volcanoes constantly, keeping an eye on them in case any of them decides to wake up. However, the Alaska Volcano Observatory has had its funding cut recently; it’s been halved since 2007. Budget cuts, sequestration, and the loss of earmarks are to blame. The effect has been bad: the AVO has had to stop real-time monitoring of at least four of Alaska’s volcanoes, and much of their equipment is old and on the verge of failing, if not already malfunctioning.

I know the economy means that lots of programs get hit, but not every program the government funds is equal. The idea of cutting back on volcano observatories is, simply, nuts. People’s lives are at stake, and certainly a big eruption has economic impact. The intersection of science and public safety is not a place we can afford to cut back.

I remember, back in 2009, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal using volcano observatories as an example of foolish spending. It’s that kind of thinking that’s foolish. Monitoring volcanoes is in everyone’s best interest, and should be a funding priority.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories to the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
Outward
Oct. 22 2014 9:00 AM Wailing Against the Pansies: Homophobia in Whiplash
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 8:43 AM Thunderstruck: Rock Out With Mother Nature’s Evil Side
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 22 2014 7:30 AM An Illusion That Makes Me Happy and Sad
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.