A look into Anchorage’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center

Anchorage's Volcanic Ash Advisory Center is one of nine ash advisory centers worldwide.
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 10:19 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In December of 1989, a flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo flew into a cloud of volcanic ash spewed into the atmosphere from Alaska’s Mount Redoubt. All four of the Boeing 747′s engines failed, and the plane quickly lost altitude before pilots could regain control and make an emergency landing in Anchorage.

The incident gave rise to the Anchorage Volcanic Ash Advisory Center, one of nine volcanic ash advisory centers worldwide that monitor the environment for hazardous volcanic ash. Scientists there pass on critical information about the location and movements of ash to ground teams, which let aircraft know whether they can fly around it, or cancel flights entirely.

The area monitored by the Anchorage team is part of a large global network of scientists who work together, according to Don Moore, acting Meteorologist In Charge for the Anchorage VAAC.

“The Anchorage VAAC has area responsibilities for all Alaska and a portion of Russia,” Moore said. “To our west is the Tokyo VAAC, to our east is the Montreal VAAC, and to our south is the Washington VAAC. We all coordinate on ash when it gets into the atmosphere and determining who’s going to issue the advisories for it and also track it.”

Moore said ash entering the atmosphere is usually observed on satellite readings. Once the team in Anchorage spots an area of concern, they utilize all the tools they have to ensure for safe air travel.

“One of the really important tools that we have are what the pilots see when they are flying past where volcanic ash might be, they can report it, they let us know,” Moore said. “We have staff at the air traffic control center here in Anchorage that works closely with the folks that are controlling where the aircraft go. We get information from them, and they help us change or modify where we believe the ash might be.”

Once observed, the center works with the forecast office to see where the ash will likely move and then issues advisory products to aircraft based on that forecast.

“We will denote where we believe the ash is located and track it across the Pacific and into Alaska and also make predictions on where we believe it will go,” Moore said. “We issue products up to 18 hours in advance. We can discuss ash further out in time but the formal products that we issue are 18 hours in advance.”

This gives airline companies enough time to decide whether to reroute, delay or even cancel flights.

Two weeks ago, the Anchorage VAAC closely monitored the eruption of the Russian volcano Shiveluch from more than 1,500 miles away. Dozens of flights were canceled or delayed into and out of Alaska as a result of the volcano’s ash. Moore said the height of the ash in the eruption stood out.

“The fact that it erupted to 50,000 feet is pretty unusual,” Moore said. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s not something that we deal with quite as often.

“It was a long, extended eruption over multiple days. So it was, you know, quite a bit of ash that went into the atmosphere that essentially was connected over thousands of miles.”