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Episode 66: Alaska’s Active Volcanoes with Dr. Michelle Coombs

podcast Dec 17, 2021

In this episode, Sharon chats with Dr. Micelle Coombs, the Scientist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Volcano Observatory. Michelle shares volcano facts with Sharon, and talks about the active volcanoes in Alaska and how volcano scientists track them to mitigate fly hazards and keep people safe from ash clouds. Together, they discuss how scientists and geologists work to piece together the mysteries of the earth around us and its fascinatingly diverse geological formation.

Links to Full Episode:

This Episode Will Teach You:

  • What a volcanologist does
  • How many active volcanoes are in Alaska
  • The different ways volcanoes erupt
  • The number of volcanoes in the US
  • What makes a volcano erupt
  • How scientists forecast volcanic eruptions
  • The difference between a dormant volcano and and an extinct volcano
  • The plane crash into Mount Aravis
  • Bear safety while studying Alaskan volcanoes
  • The Katmai Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousands Smokes

3 Biggest Takeaways:

  • When Michelle took a class on Outdoor Geology, she was hooked. She didn’t study volcanoes from the beginning, but when she moved to Alaska for grad school, she grew to love identifying rocks and their chemistry to try and unravel what led to volcanic eruptions. While we tend to associate volcanoes with tropical climates, volcanic formation and eruptions happen based on tectonic settings, not climates. The volcanoes in Alaska are Subduction Zone Volcanoes. The crust that makes up the Pacific Ocean is sub-ducting underneath the North American plate and creates a beautiful chain of volcanoes in Alaska called the Aleutian Arc.
  • There are 54 historically active volcanoes in Alaska, and three erupting right now! Most Alaskan volcanoes have “explosive eruptions” and put up ash clouds. These are extremely hazardous so they give fly warnings and warn people who live near them. Volcanic ash is not soft like fireplace ash. It’s pulverized rock so it can be extremely abrasive to engines and humans if we breathe it in. Volcanic ash is very heavy and can collapse buildings if it builds up enough.
  • The largest volcanic eruption in the 20th and 21st century was in Alaska. The Katmai Novarupta was a double eruption that formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The eruption filled the 9-mile long valley with hot ash and formed steam vents, which is why it’s called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The valley is located in the Katmai National Park and Preserve, which is on a peninsula in southern Alaska.

About the Guest:

Dr. Michelle Coombs is Scientist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Volcano Observatory. She lives in Anchorage with her husband and two children. She has conducted research at 17 of Alaska's 54 historically active volcanoes. 

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