Forest Service webcam is only 'eye' close to Mount St. Helens

Every five minutes, the VolcanoCam server slices a still image from the video stream and relays it to Forest Service Web servers.

Courtesy of USGS John Pallister

When Mount St. Helens threatened to erupt early this month and the immediate area had to be evacuated, a low-cost webcam attached to a surplus Pentium III server kept watch over the rumbling peak outside Amboy, Wash.

Every five minutes, the Forest Service's Mount St. Helens VolcanoCam is posting a new picture from the camera. Some shots show a peaceful mountain; steam billows across others.

The VolcanoCam was 'the closest camera of any type to Mount St. Helens' during the evacuation, said Dennis Lapcewich, Forest Service webmaster for the Pacific Northwest region.

Not surprisingly, the Agriculture agency's Web servers have been inundated with viewer requests.

Prior to the hubbub, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument site averaged about 50,000 hits a month. Early last week, hits on the cam page jumped to more than 75,000 a day, Lapcewich said.

'I'm getting e-mails from teachers and students all over the world who think it's wonderful,' he said.

The VolcanoCam site gets no direct funding from the Forest Service, though the agency supports the infrastructure. The camera was bought with funds raised by the Northwest Interpretive Association, a nonprofit business coalition.

The webcam sits in a weatherproof box outside the Johnston Ridge Observatory, about five miles from the 8,300-foot mountain. It sends live video to the server inside the observatory. Every five minutes, the server slices a still image from the video stream and relays it to the Forest Service's Web servers.

VolcanoCam began six years ago, just 'because it could be done,' Lap-cewich said.

The original camera stopped working in 2002, however, because of wind-blown ash. The replacement, a Sanyo VCC4594, was set up late last month just before the volcano started to rumble.

The volcano shook with minor tremors'an indication that gushes of magma were probably coming. On Oct. 2, the Geological Survey issued a Level 3 volcano alert, which caused the evacuation of parts of Gifford Pinchot National Forest surrounding the crater.

The Forest Service isn't the only agency that's watching the rumbling mountain. USGS, since the 1980 eruption, has been keeping close watch on Mount St. Helens.

The Web site for USGS' Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., tracks volcanic activity along the Cascade Mountains and collects data to better predict future eruptions. During Mount St. Helens' increased activity, the observatory Web site provided updates as well as recent images taken around the crater.

260 feelers

In addition, the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network, operated by the University of Washington, has 260 seismograph stations that keep tabs on ground tremors. Visitors to the network's Web site can view real-time seismic data for each station.

The biggest threat to VolcanoCam late last week was not from flows of molten lava but rather server overload. As the site slowed, Lapcewich said he started receiving anxious e-mails about the camera. It was fine'but the Forest Service's servers were running sluggishly under all the requests, he said.

To view the Forest Service's VolcanoCam, go to www.gcn.com and enter GCN.com/311; for USGS' Cascades Volcano Observatory site, enter 312; and for the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network, enter 313.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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