Alaskans May Store Vehicles to Protect Them From Volcanic Ash Fallout

Posted on Dec 31 2009 - 3:38am by Holly Robinson

One of Alaska’s volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt, is beginning to rumble again. Volcanologists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory have put Redoubt on a code yellow state of alert. Code yellow means that Redoubt is showing signs of unrest, beyond its normal background level. Volcanologists use a four-tiered color coding system: green means activity levels are normal and that scientists do not expect an imminent eruption, yellow means that there are signs of unrest, orange means that there has been increasing unrest with a strong potential for eruption, and red means that the volcano is currently erupting.

Most Alaskans are not worried about having to evacuate from their homes — most live too far from Mt. Redoubt for their lives to be in any danger from an eruption — but Alaskans do worry about the possibility of an ashfall. It is not unusual for clouds of ash to spew from Alaska’s volcanoes as they become more active. To protect machinery and sensitive equipment from ash contamination, it is wise to cover and store them during any periods of ashfall. 


A major concern for Alaskans living within the fallout area for any ash clouds that emerge from Mt. Redoubt is the effect of ash on vehicles, especially airplanes, cars and trucks. Ash eruptions from Alaska’s volcanoes have, in the past, sent clouds into the air that deposited ash over much of southcentral Alaska, including the Anchorage area. In 1992, Mt. Spurr erupted and sent ash clouds over Anchorage, where they deposited as much as 1/4 inch (about 3 mm) of ash. Although a quarter inch of ash does not sound like much, it was enough to close all of Anchorage’s airports, including Elmendorf Air Force Base, and the cost of cleaning and protecting aircraft alone was between $650,000 and $683,000.

Volcanic ash, unlike the ash that is produced by a burning fire, is not soft. It is composed of tiny pieces of rock and volcanic glass. Ash can drift inside nearly any opening in a vehicle, and often scratches any surfaces it comes into contact with. A car’s air filtration system can become clogged by ash very quickly, causing the car’s engine to overheat and give out. Small amounts of ash inside an engine can speed up an engine’s normal process of aging through wear and tear. Transmissions also experience extra wear and tear after being exposed to ash. Ash can cause hydraulic seals to wear out faster than usual, and can clog brakes and brake assemblies. Ash caught between a windshield and windshield wiper blades will permanently scratch the windshield. Windows that are covered in ash are likely to be scratched, permanently, each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned. Paint and exterior fittings can be corroded by ash. 

To protect a car or truck from ash damage, the Alaska Volcano Observatory recommends frequent oil changes, frequent cleaning and replacing of air filters, using air pressure to blow ash off electrical equipment and engine components, and regularly cleaning ash off the outside of a vehicle with water. During ash clean-ups, it is important to dispose of ash or ash-contaminated wastewater without putting it into the wastewater or water drainage system. It is better for cars and trucks not to be driven at all in heavy ash conditions, but if it is necessary to drive, the Alaska Volcano Observatory recommends that drivers not exceed 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour).

The effects of ash on aircraft are even more serious, especially if the plane flies through an ash cloud. According to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, an erupting volcano, or one that is merely sending ash into the atmosphere, can endanger aircraft within a 3,200 mile (2,000 km) radius. Ash may deposit material on hot-section components of a plane, erode compressor blades and rotor path components, block fuel nozzles and cooling passages, contaminate the oil system and bleed-air supply, block a pilot’s view of windscreen and landing lights, contaminate electronics, erode antenna surfaces, and plug the pitot-static system, which shows the aircraft’s speed. Consequently, flying through or near ash clouds is generally regarded as extremely unsafe. Aircraft should be completely covered and stored in a hangar during volcanic eruptions and during the hours of potential ash exposure afterward.  


Alaskans living in the southcentral region are keeping an eye on forecasts from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, so that they have some warning if ash clouds head toward their area, and can take precautionary measures to protect cars, trucks, and airplanes. Alaskans who must leave the area to travel are putting cars, trucks, and airplanes into garages, or, if necessary, into storage facilities, before they leave, to avoid damage in case of a sudden ashfall. Even inside a storage facility, it is important to cover vehicles, as ash can find its way inside through tiny cracks and openings. Less ash is likely to drift inside storage buildings than homes, however, because homes have many doors and windows and are usually made of wood or bricks, which can develop cracks and openings over the years — storage facilities are usually windowless and made of solid concrete.