From about 2000 miles away, a Geophysical Institute graduate student was the first to spot the eruption of Bezymianny Volcano on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Research Assistant Chris Wyatt, who is working toward a master's degree in geology, discovered the eruption on satellite images during a daily inspection of the area.
Early on October 5, Wyatt noticed a white "hot" spot over a cluster of volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula on an Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer satellite image.
Since thermal-band, black-and-white AVHRR images depict the temperature of the ground, white hot spots indicate increased thermal activity. Sometimes the hot spots precede volcanic eruptions.
"I see a lot of hot spots come and go without an ash cloud forming," Wyatt said. "I watched this one carefully because it stood out from the background temperature more than in previous months."
A few hours later, Wyatt noticed the formation of a cold black cloud on satellite images above Bezymianny Volcano. He identified the cloud as an ash plume that had cooled after rising to high altitudes. At first, the volcanic plume was difficult to differentiate from surrounding atmospheric clouds, but after using a band subtraction, Wyatt was sure he had identified an eruption.
Wyatt's discovery is unique because eruptions usually are reported first by pilots, local residents, or seismologists, then searched for on satellite images.
After finding the eruption, Wyatt notified Geophysical Institute Research Assistant Professor Ken Dean, who alerted the Alaska Volcano Observatory and other authorities.
Dean and Research Assistant Craig Searcy, who is working toward a doctorate degree in geophysics, activated PUFF, a computerized ash-plume tracking model.
PUFF forecast the ash cloud would soon drift eastward into the air traffic corridor between Tokyo and Anchorage. Ash plumes are hazardous to aircraft because abrasive ash particles can cause engines to fail, windows to turn opaque, and delicate instruments to clog.
Since more than 40,000 large passenger-carrying aircraft annually fly over or near the Alaska, Aleutian and Kamchatka volcanoes, AVO immediately issued warnings about the movement of the ash plume to the Federal Aviation Administration, to the National Weather Service, and to airlines.