ANCHORAGE, Alaska – From his home in Nanwalek, Vince Evans can stare across the water at Augustine Volcano as it pumps out clouds of ash and steam, but like many residents in the isolated village, Evans prefers to check the Internet for the latest on the erupting island mount.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory's popular Web site lets the public track Augustine's activity, from live earthquake data to hourly updates on the blasts of ash and rocky pyroclastic flows that have rumbled down the snowy volcano since it began erupting in mid-January.
"When I wake up, I turn it on and keep track of Augustine through the night," said Evans, a 43-year-old health practitioner in the south-central Alaska community.
With a network that includes seismic stations, cameras and Global Positioning System receivers, Augustine is the most heavily instrumented volcano in the state.
In the last decade, scientists have concentrated equipment on the uninhabited island because it is a short flight from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula and has less vegetation, ice and snow than other nearby volcanos in the Alaska Range.
Because of the Web site, residents of remote Alaska communities like Nanwalek can make better decisions about whether to shut down schools, carry dust masks to church or take the time to cover heating vents with pantyhose to filter volcanic ash.
"We can go online and see the wind direction and see when ash is going to fall," Evans said. "Before, it just happened, now there's more preparation."
The Web site provides information Evans did not have during a major eruption 20 years ago, when a dark cloud filled with ash and spiked with lightning headed across Cook Inlet toward Nanwalek, a 200-person village only reachable by plane or boat.
"We just went home and watched it through our window," Evans said. "Information we just got through TV and radio."
Augustine dusted small communities in south-central Alaska with extremely light ashfall during two series of eruptions in January. Alaska Airlines, the state's largest carrier, grounded dozens of flights during one day of ash explosions. The string of sporadic eruptions could go on for months, scientists said.
The wealth of data, combined with easy communication through the Internet, has allowed the public to glean more timely and useful information about Augustine's eruptions than those of any other volcano in the state's past.
"No erupting volcano in Alaska has ever been this closely monitored before," said Game McGimsey, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The observatory's Web site has tallied about 158 million hits this year, said Seth Snedigar, an analyst programmer for the state Department of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
Regularly updated Web camera images of the 4,134-foot volcano receive the most mouse clicks, he said. One camera sits on Augustine's eastern flank, while another records the volcano from the town of Homer, 75 miles northeast across Cook Inlet.
Observatory scientists also use the site as a public journal of the research trips they take to the island during lulls between explosions, as well as aerial photos of Augustine. Data collection also is safer for scientists now that volcanos have more instruments on site.
"The public can see almost everything we see," McGimsey said. "Even the seismic data is exactly what's posted in our operation room right now."
People can also e-mail their own observations or ask questions through the site. Hundreds have written from all 50 states and a host of foreign countries and scientists have replied to every missive. Many Alaskans have mailed ash samples to the observatory after following the site's step-by-step guide on ash collection.
Improvements in volcano monitoring have helped the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines make more accurate decisions on flying restrictions during a volcanic eruption.
"The FAA and folks having to make the call to delay flights can almost do it in real time," said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.