Supervisory geologist Chris Nye is not your run-of-the-mill scientist. He’s a rare breed—a volcanologist—and he works for the state of Alaska.
Since 1988, Nye has worked with the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO). It’s a joint program of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the state’s Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
The AVO monitors the state’s volcanoes, provides warnings of impending eruptions and conducts basic research to try to understand the hazards. “I have the luxury of being able to pursue a hobby in a lot of detail and call it a job,” says Nye.
It’s a big job considering that Alaska has more than three dozen active volcanoes in a chain stretching 1,500 miles. “Imagine a map of Alaska,” says Nye, a member of the Alaska Public Employees Association. “There is the big central part, the head of a woolly mammoth. Reaching out to the west, the tusk of the woolly mammoth, that is the chain of volcanoes.”
One of the greatest hazards posed by Alaska’s volcanoes is the interruption of international air traffic due to volcanic ash. As the geometric center of the industrialized world, Alaska—Anchorage in particular—is a pit stop for virtually all international freight. And most passenger flights between East Asia and North America pass over Alaska, too.
Nye says the ash can cause jet aircraft engine failure. “There have been incidents where all four engines have shut down over Alaska and elsewhere around the planet,” says Nye. “But in all cases so far they have managed to restart engines.”
One of those incidents occurred in December 1989. A day after Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano erupted, a KLM Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet carrying nearly 250 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Tokyo via Anchorage, flew into an ash cloud belched by the 10,197-foot volcano. All four engines shut down. “It was within two minutes of impact,” recalls Nye, when the plane’s engines were restarted.
“One of the things that is neat about this job is that it really is science in the public interest,” says Nye. “There are billions of dollars at risk.”