Teaching about Volcanic Hazards

You’ve probably heard that Redoubt, a volcano 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, has been erupting intermittently since March 22. I used to live in Anchorage, so I’ve been keeping up with the volcano’s activity via the Alaska Volcano Observatory web site. I’m thankful that I’m not there to deal with the major hazard – ash.

View to the east of the summit crater of Redoubt volcano, heavily covered with deposits from recent eruptions. The near ridge, right of the notch, is the upper reach of the Crescent Glacier on the southwest flank. March 31, 2009. Photo courtesy of Game McGimsey and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey.

Volcanic ash consists of tiny jagged pieces of rock and glass. These hard, abrasive particles are spread by wind and impact communities in a variety of ways – including damage to planes and cars, ventilation systems of buildings, water pollution, and possible respiratory problems.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of ash particles erupted by Redoubt volcano on March 22, 2009. Image courtesy of Tom Kircher and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

In Alaska, Redoubt’s ashfall has led to flight cancellations, school closings, disruptions to the oil industry, and even delays in seafood shipments.

Volcanic ash fall out in Nikiski, AK from Redoubt volcano. Photo courtesy of Kristi Wallace and the Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey.

Other volcanic hazards include aerosols, lahars, pyroclastic flows, lava flows, and landslides. Some of the most well-known eruptions have caused a great deal of damage – think of the mudflows after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo or the explosion and ash cloud of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Scientists are trying to better understand the inner workings of volcanoes to predict eruptions and minimize damage. During an eruption such as Redoubt’s current activity, mathematical modeling of atmospheric currents helps predict which areas will be most affected by ashfall.

While volcanoes are almost always part of a broader study of plate tectonics, we don’t always take the time to focus on the impacts of eruptions on humans. The following resources take this approach to studying volcanoes and thus align with the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard of the National Science Education Standards.

Volcanoes – Local Hazard, Global Issue
This module allows middle school students to explore two ways that volcanoes affect Earth: by directly threatening people and environments adjacent to them and by ejecting aerosols into the atmosphere. Through three investigations, students explore issues of volcano hazards at different scales, from their local environment to the global effect of volcanic aerosols on climate and aircraft safety.

Mount Pinatubo: The Aftermath of a Volcanic Eruption
This video (3:30) shows the ash fall and mud flows triggered by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Questions for discussion lead students to consider the effects of volcanic eruptions on humans and how communities near volcanoes can protect themselves in the future.

Volcano Hazards Program
The USGS web site provides information about the 169 active volcanoes in the United States, teaching resources, information about volcanic ash, and volcano webcams.

Volcanoes and Climate Change
This article from NASA explains how volcanic eruptions impact global climate.

Seismic Signals
This interactive activity from NOVA Online illustrates some of the clues seismologists are using to better understand activity within a volcano and predict eruptions.

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