Volcano Obsession — UPDATED 03-23-09

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UPDATE (3.23.09): According to widespread news reports, Mt. Redoubt erupted last night four times and is expected to continue similar activity for "some days, weeks, maybe even months."

Volcanoes around the world erupt each week, but we rarely pay any attention unless the level of destruction is particularly high or, if we’re smart, we're about to visit them. Or, like me, you get near-daily emails from the USGS warning you that a particular Alaskan volcano could erupt at any moment.

Mount Redoubt last erupted nearly 20 years ago. An unfortunate airplane happened to be just above the volcano when the eruption began, and its four engines died, clogged by the ash. But the plane made it safely to Anchorage, 110 miles to the northeast. The oil industry was not as lucky, and the ash, debris and mudflows running into the Cook Inlet caused $160 million in damage and loss of revenue (oil production was halted in several places).

So I understand that there is potential for damage should Redoubt erupt this month—airplanes will have to be rerouted; Anchorage could suffer ash-filled skies; the oilmen might not make as much money this year. And I’m a fan of destruction science (I’ll readily admit I get a bit too excited during hurricane season). Further, I’m happy to see the USGS on top of things, watching the action carefully with seismic stations and webcams.

What I fail to understand are the 1,460 online news stories about the potential eruption (searching for “Mount Redoubt” in Google News). Why do so many people outside Alaska (and the oil and aviation industries) care about a remote volcano that may or may not erupt? What makes this one special? In the last Smithsonian/USGS Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, there were 16 other volcanoes with documented activity. Have you even heard of most of them?

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