Banded pumice colors the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Katmai National Park in Southwest Alaska. A summer view of Katmai Pass extends to Novarupta volcano

The eruption that transformed Southwest Alaska

[By Andromeda Romano-Lax]

A hundred years ago, on a hot and windless June day along the Katmai coast, a strange snow began to fall. Rice-sized bits of pumice whitened Kaflia Bay, while to the west, darkness crept across the sky.

More than a dozen earthquakes of magnitude six to seven had been rattling the coast for days. Aluutiq people living in small villages and fishing camps scattered across the region watched and wondered. When the “storm” finally struck, children ran for higher ground to watch lightning—rare in these parts—flash against the troubled horizon. Parents called them back, instructing them to take shelter in traditional barabaras. Older villagers called out directions: Turn boats upside down. They will be filled with ash …. Put away as much water as you can and store it, reserve it.

Just across Shelikof Strait, on Kodiak Island, people would experience the eruption’s effects in confused terror. On the Katmai coast, oral tradition carried at least one reassuring message—this event was not something entirely new. Like earthquakes and tsunamis, those other transformers of the tectonically active Alaska coast, volcanic eruptions had scattered ash across these lands many times before.

Awaiting Death

Yet even Katmai residents, accustomed to volcanic rumblings, couldn’t have predicted how much fire and fury Novarupta would ultimately unleash. A man wrote to his wife from Kaflia Bay: “We are awaiting death at any moment .… Here are darkness and hell, thunder and noise. I do not know whether it is day or night. Pray for us.”

View of the lava plug of Novarupta from the crater rim. Photo taken at what was later designated as Katmai National Park and Preserve, during a National Geographic Society expedition to the Katmai area.

On June 8, three days of sulfurous gloom later, Southwest Alaska emerged from the threatening shadow of an eruption larger than any other in the 20th century.

Most people have heard of Washington state’s Mount St. Helens, which killed 57 people in 1980—the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in American history. But despite releasing 30 times as much magma as that more southerly volcano, fewer recognize “Novarupta,” the name given to the new vent that formed suddenly in 1912, in a geological process that wasn’t understood until the 1950s.

To the east of that vent and connected by a system of subterranean “plumbing,” so much magma drained from Mount Katmai that its summit collapsed, forming a caldera 800 feet deep. Today, the 295-foot Novarupta dome is sealed with a lava plug.

Located 290 miles southwest of Anchorage, Novarupta spewed glowing pumice and ash, wiping out all wildlife in its path and devastating a 40-square-mile area that had once been lush and green. Closest to the explosion, blasts of hot gas and wind carbonized trees. The flat valley floor suffocated under a blanket of ash up to 700 feet thick.

The volcano unleashed a blast heard in Juneau, 750 miles away. It created acid rain that damaged clothes hanging on lines in Vancouver. And it created vivid sunsets halfway around the world.

It also, just a few years later, introduced the world to an amazing post-volcanic landscape and its resilient wilderness surroundings: the Alaska Peninsula, an awe-inspiring place on the Pacific’s Ring of Fire. This summer, the centennial of Novarupta will bring well-deserved attention to this beautiful region—and its dramatic geological history—all over again.

Dead spruce tree is a remnant of the 1912 eruption of Novarupta, at the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Katmai National Park.

Fire and Fear

Today, Alaska and Pacific Northwest residents are accustomed to getting lots of warning about volcanoes, and for good reason. Even small amounts of fine ash from small eruptions like the ones unleashed by Spurr, Augustine, and Redoubt can damage passenger jets flying our busy North Pacific skies. Since 1988, the Alaska Volcano Observatory has kept watch on more than 50 Alaska volcanoes active within historic times, including Redoubt, whose 1989-1990 eruptions were the second most costly in U.S. history.

Imagine how a much larger eruption, unleashed in a remote corner of Alaska, cut off from nearly all sources of aid and information, would have been experienced 100 years ago. Some Alaska Peninsula families had already taken heed from the days of preceding earthquakes and had fled to Cold Bay, farther south, or Bristol Bay, to the west. Some were employed in canneries. But others were still out on the land, hunting and fishing. Among the closest to the exploding mountain was Petr “American Pete” Kayagvag, who was in the process of moving from one Ukak River village to another when Novarupta erupted.

“The Katmai mountain blew up with lots of fire and fire came down trail from Katmai with lots of smoke. We go fast Savonoski. Everybody get bidarka (skin boat). Helluva job. We come Naknek one day, dark, no could see. Hot ash fall. Work like hell.”

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