Friday, April 27, 2012

Alaska's Mt. Iliamna Volcano Rumbles Away

The heightened seismicity at Alaska's mt. Iliamna continues, and today the seismicity is stronger than it has been. At around 6am UTC seismicity increased and is ongoing at this time. This probably indicates further intrusion as the seismicity does appear to be harmonic tremor. Mt. Iliamna has not erupted in historical time, but the mountain displays vigorous fumeroles at the summit and flank. A previous visit by AVO scientists revealed heightened temperatures and gas emissions from the fumeroles, but they were quick to point out that the current unrest is similar to events in the 1990's when magma dike intrusion occurred, but did not lead to an eruption.

Live webicorder of Iliamna seismicity from AVO.

However the current unrest at the volcano is strong compared to previous events, and has now been underway for well over a month or so. It is my guess that intrusion is definitely taking place. Whether or not this actually leads to an eruption remains to be seen, but all the indicators are there.

Live image via AVO webcam of Mt. Iliamna

An eruption at Iliamna would most likely start off explosive, most likely phreatic eruptions. Phreatic eruptions occur when melt water comes into contact with a subterranean heat source like a magma chamber or very hot rock. This results in water flashing into steam and creating a steam driven explosion. Once this occurs, it can release pressure holding back the magma, and would likely enter a dome building phase. Of course, this is speculation because we've never seen the volcano erupt in historical time, and the structure of the volcano is highly eroded by glaciation.

Currently the visual indicators from Iliamna (via webcam) show nothing unusual, but as is the case for volcanoes that haven't recently erupted, this can change suddenly at any time. Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland experienced a couple hundred years of dormancy until seismicity increased, and began with a small fissure eruption, and then a main event that caused a widespread ash cloud to strand passengers in Europe for weeks on end, causing economic hardship in the Eurozone, not to mention a lot of frustration.

Due to Iliamna's location on a heavily trafficked air route, an eruption would cause some travel disruptions if an ash cloud was produced. However, there is no threat to any human population due to its remoteness but ashfall would likely occur in some towns near the area (including the area where the webcam is placed!). Alaskans are no stranger to ash covered homes and cars, as two volcanoes, Cleveland and Augustine frequently erupt and produce fine ash.

As it stands right now, there is no imminent risk of eruption, just heightened temperature and seismicity. You would likely see a much more dramatic rise in harmonic tremor and larger, more frequent, and shallower quakes if the eruption was about to start or was underway. But the best indicator of all, of course, is the webcam and visual observations. Until then, Iliamna rumbles away, keeping us all guessing.

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