Volcanic mountains

Preparing for volcanic eruptions at Okmok Volcano, Alaska

Preparing for volcanic eruptions at Okmok Volcano, Alaska

Location of Okmok Volcano in the central Aleutian Islands, which form an arc connecting western Alaska to northern Asia. Other volcanoes, including Cleveland, are marked with black triangles and local communities are depicted. The inset map shows the context relative to Alaska. Map: Larsen et al., 2015

Okmok Volcano off the Alaskan coast has swelled steadily since its last eruption in 2008, telling us new magma is likely accumulating beneath it and the next eruption isn’t far in the future. . We have therefore chosen it as the main target of our project, Anticipating Volcanic Eruptions in Real-Time (AVERT). AVERT is a collaboration between Columbia University and the Alaska Volcano Observatory to study volcanoes in Alaska using a wide variety of modern monitoring instruments and technologies, including position tracking High precision GPS, magnetometers, infrared and visible webcams and fast satellite communication. This new network is designed to provide real-time data directly from the volcano that will be immediately open to scientists and the public.

map of monitoring stations around the okmok volcano

A map showing the topography of Okmok Volcano, showing its central caldera and the cones within. Four-letter acronyms beginning with OK mark the locations of monitoring stations. This year’s goal is to add GPS, magnetometer and satellite data transmission to OKAK and OKWE, GPS and magnetometer to OKBR and OKCF, as well as many fixes and updates to several other stations .

After delays due to COVID and bad weather, we finally arrived in Okmok in mid-September. The trip here was neither short nor easy – some of us arrived here after spending three weeks on a research vessel on the nearby volcano, called Cleveland on the island of Four Mountains, which is also part of the AVERT project. Others traveled from New York to Anchorage, then took a small plane to Dutch Harbor, then boarded a small boat for a 9-hour trip from Unalaska Island to the island of Unmak, where Okmok is located. We also brought a lot of equipment with us, including dozens of batteries, solar panels, sensors and, of course, lots and lots of food.

crane putting food and equipment on a boat

Loading our food and gear onto the Miss Alyssa in Dutch Harbour. Photo: Einat Lev

Our food and equipment inside the Miss Alyssa. Photo: Einat Lev

After unloading all the gear and food at the dock, we moved it to where it will be our home for the next two weeks: Bering Pacific Ranch on Umnak Island. Located on a former World War II military base, the ranch had thousands of head of cattle, many of which still roam the land freely. We did our best not to disturb the bulls.

cows and old machines in the pasture

A typical view of the Bering Pacific Ranch. Rusty machinery from bygone eras, cattle roaming free and Ship Rock, an important rock element in the sound between Unalaska and Umnak. Unalaska is visible in the background. Photo: Einat Lev

West of Bering Pacific Ranch towards Tulik, an ancient volcanic cone on the southern flank of Okmok. The snow-capped southern rim of the Okmok Caldera is visible in the background. Working in the Aleutians in September means cooler temperatures but also less fog. Photo: Einat Lev

Our only means of transportation between the ranch and the lookout stations is by helicopter, making it a fun adventure! But it also means that we are very sensitive to weather conditions and can’t go out if it’s too windy or cloudy where we’re trying to get to. Helicopter transport also allows us to collect many aerial photos, which we use to create detailed 3D models of the volcanic cones and flows. These will reveal information about the rate at which the landscape changes over time.

helicopter outside a cabin

Our helicopter and a full rainbow. The constantly changing weather conditions, alternating rain and sun, create many beautiful rainbows. The cabin is the same as in the previous photo. Photo: Einat Lev

Our helicopter against the conical silhouette of Tulik at sunset. Photo: Einat Lev

Our team unloading from the helicopter one evening on the ranch. Photo: Einat Lev

The scenery at our stations and en route between them is spectacular. For example, the path to sites inside the caldera usually takes us through a narrow opening in the rim dubbed “The Gates”. A river with large waterfalls runs through The Gates, making the entrance breathtaking every time – and not just because of the bumps due to the always windy conditions. Stations inside the caldera have views of the multiple volcanic cones and lava flows, while stations outside have views of the ocean and caldera rim.

aerial view of the waterfall

Large waterfalls on the river that drains the Okmok caldera through the gates. Photo: Einat Lev

The gates, looking towards the caldera of Okmok. Photo: Einat Lev

person near monitoring station

Alaska Volcano Observatory field technician Cora Siebert sets up a radio antenna at the OKNO site, with the northern rim of the caldera behind her.

On a clear day, the OKBR station, located inside the caldera on the south side, offers a view of four different volcanic cones. Photo: Einat Lev

Cows are not the only animals we encounter on the island. The island has many caribou, several foxes frequent the ranch hoping to find remains, bald eagles fly overhead, and there is even a small herd of wild horses.

Wild horses in the pasture near the shore, with snow-capped Tulik and the rim of the Okmok caldera in the background. Photo: Einat Lev

The next blog post will be about the ranch’s amazing food, which definitely deserves its own write-up!

Einat Lev is an Associate Research Professor at the Columbia Climate School Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The AVERT project is led by Einat Lev, Terry Plank and Nick Frearson, and is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.