Erupting Cleveland Volcano, Alaska. Credit: NASAVolcanic Ashfall Preparedness and Cleanup – Alaska is home to many restless and active volcanoes. Since the 1700s, there have been more than 41 different volcanoes erupt in Alaska and some of them have individually erupted more than 25 times. The Alaska Volcano Observatory monitors some 20 different volcanoes using recording seismometers, satellite imagery and satellite based measurement of volcano deformation.

During an eruption or in periods of heightened volcanic activity, the AVO’s chief mission is to provide information about the activity and how to deal with the consequences of an eruption.

One literal fallout that Alaskans face is massive amounts of ash released into the atmosphere after a volcanic eruption.  This ash eventually settles back to earth. Volcanic ash is nasty stuff, easily blown around and difficult to clean up. Ash plumes have shutdown jet airliners and damaged motorized equipment. Dealing with the aftermath of a volcanic eruption will take exercising preparedness which is something each of us should consider doing.

Volcanic ash is made up of very small particles that can be under 10 microns in diameter. It is small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. It has a crystalline structure that easily scratches and abrades moving surfaces. It gets behind contact lens, damages engine components and can short-circuit electrical equipment.

Ashfall preparedness involves being ready to wait out an eruption, ashfalls can last for several days, and then having the supplies on hand to clean up after things have settled down. Many of the preparedness actions required post eruption would be appropriate in preparing for other natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunami. Both the State of Alaska and the US Geographical Survey offer some ideas for dealing with volcanic ash. Here are some highlights of these suggestions:

Before an Ashfall – Stock up on materials and items needed to survive without outside help for 72 hours. Items to consider:

  • Dusk masks and eye protection appropriate for use around ash. The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network maintains guidance page on the web for recommended dust masks that will provide protection from volcanic ash. Look for a mask that is NIOSH approved and labeled TC-21C-XXX.
  • Non-perishable food and water, enough for all family members and pets for at least 72 hours.
  • A battery powered NOAA, all hazards weather radio, matches, flashlights, candles, spare batteries, first-aid kit, medication, survival gear and spare blankets.
  • Stockpile cleaning supplies. Keep plastic wrap and spare vacuum cleaner filters on hand.
  • Become familiar with workplace and school emergency plans and discuss them with the family.

During the Ashfall – A sustained ashfall can keep you indoors for extended periods of time, up to several days. This can be mitigated by:

  • Close all doors, windows, stove or fireplace dampers and sources of drafts. Avoid using fireplaces, clothes dryers or wood burning stoves. Seal draft sources like leaky windows with tape.
  • Cover electronic equipment and keep it covered until the environment is completely ash free. Ash is conductive and will destroy a computer in time.
  • Homes that utilize rain catchments for drinking water need to disconnect downspouts and seal openings in storage containers.
  • Those with respiratory diseases need to especially avoid trips outside of the home. Avoid using contact lens.
  • Clean up ash as it accumulates. Use a vacuum cleaner, wiping up ash will cause scratches. Shake, brush and presoak clothing before laundering. Try to keep work clothes out of the home completely.

Cleaning Up After the Ashfall – It is easier to deal with volcanic ash if it can be kept out of things with the use of covers and shelter. After an ashfall, it is important to start cleaning it up right away.

  • Don a recommended filter mask and use eye protection prior to starting cleanup efforts.
  • Stiff brooms and flat shovels work well for cleaning up thicker ash deposits. Dampen ash with water prior to disturbing it to avoid excessive dust.
  • Remove heavy accumulations of ash from roofs and gutters. Wet ash is extremely heavy and can damage roofs. Ash is slippery, so exercise caution when working around it.
  • Avoid using the car after an ashfall. Driving stirs up excessive dust and the volcanic grit will damage the engine. Carry spare air filters and change them often. Until ash is completely removed, plan to change the oil and have the brakes and alternator cleaned often, every 50 to 500 miles depending on ash concentrations. Clean wiper blades often, the ash will scratch windshields.
  • Avoid washing ash into storm drains; it can raise havoc with wastewater treatment plants. After an emergency, water may be in short supply.

In Alaska, it isn’t a matter of if we will need to deal with volcanic ash; it’s more a matter of when it will happen. There are many active volcanoes near populated areas and an uneasy coexistence may be the hopeful expectation. Many communities have local preparedness plans that are worth reviewing.

Copyright – 2013 by Alan Sorum.

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