- Historic Sites
Sixty-eight years before Mount St. Helens blew, Alaska’s Mount Katmai erupted—and nearly brought on a second ice age
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
On August 26, 1883, Krakatoa, a small island between Java and Sumatra in western Indonesia, erupted with a violence perhaps unprecedented in geological history. Nearly five cubic miles of material were blown into the atmosphere. A 120-foot tidal wave swept the coasts of nearby islands, destroying 295 villages and drowning 36,000 people. The fine dust from the volcano reached an altitude of 120,000 feet, causing brilliant sunsets around the world for more than a year, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface by 12 per cent, and effecting a marked cooling of the world’s weather.
Almost thirty years later a second volcanic explosion of equal magnitude took place at the opposite end of the great crescent of active volcanoes that sweeps from Indonesia in the west to Alaska in the east. For two and a half days, 33,000,000 tons of material exploded into the sky. But unlike the earlier eruption on Krakatoa, this one at Mount Katmai occurred in the Alaskan wilderness. Because of the remoteness of the area, and because not a single human life was lost, the facts of the eruption are remembered today chiefly by a handful of volcanists. However, the dimensions of the eruption can be appreciated if one imagines a similar explosion occurring in San Francisco. Oakland would be buried beneath twenty feet of ashes, Sacramento beneath one foot; the sound would rattle windows in Phoenix; acid rains would fall on Denver; and sulfur fumes would tarnish brass in St. Louis. San Francisco and its surrounding communities would simply disappear, replaced by a hellish landscape of yawning chasms and fiery fountains of burning lava.
The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands form one of the most conspicuous arcs of active volcanoes in the Pacific. There are eighty in the Aleutian Range, and forty-seven of them are known to have been active since 1760. But until its cataclysmic explosions in June, 1912, Mount Katmai had been dormant for so long that not even the oral history of the Indians who lived near its base contained stories of any previous activity. Few outsiders had ever heard of the mountain. Russian fur traders penetrated the area in the early nineteenth century, and in 1899 prospectors eager to reach the gold fields of Nome sometimes used Katmai Pass as a shortcut. For the most part, though, the world at large had little reason to note the existence of Mount Katmai.
A series of earthquakes started on June 1, the first hint of activity in the region. Shortly after noon on June 6 the first eruption occurred, a thunderous explosion of rock and pumice. Soon afterward a second explosion took place when a brand-new volcano, later named Novarupta, was born and within a few minutes poured more than 2.5 cubic miles of white-hot powdery ash into a nearby valley. The wave of hot gases and ash carbonized everything in its path as it swept the length of the mountain valley, burying more than 40 square miles of lush forest to a depth of 700 feet in places. Most of this magma came from beneath Mount Katmai 6 miles away. Soon the entire top of the volcano collapsed, leaving in its place an immense caldera 3 miles long, 2 miles wide, and almost 2,000 feet deep. By the time the eruptions had ceased two days later, more than 7 cubic miles of pumice and rock had been hurled into the atmosphere, almost half again as much as at Krakatoa.
A small group of Indians from the settlement of Savonoski had entered the area to retrieve some hunting equipment and were there for the first explosions. Their chief, “American Pete,” later told investigators what they saw. “The Katmai Mountain blew up with lots of fire, and fire come down trail from Katmai with lots of smoke. We go fast Savonoski. Everybody get in bidarka [a skin boat]. Helluva job. We come Naknek one day, dark, no could see. Hot ash fall. Work like hell. … Never can go back to Savonoski to live again. Everything ash.”
More distant witnesses were the crew of the steamer Dora , which was passing through the Shelikof Strait 55 miles away when the first eruptions occurred. At 1:00 P.M. the sailors sighted a dark cloud on the horizon, which spread across the sky and quickly overtook them. A rain of hot ashes swirled over the ship. It became so dark the men could not see their way about the decks. Lightning flashed overhead and thunder roared, both phenomena virtually unknown along the Alaska Peninsula. “In the saloon everything was white with a thick layer of dust,” the mail clerk recalled later, “while a thick haze filled the air. The temperature rose rapidly, and the air, what there was of it, became heavy, sultry, and stifling. Below deck conditions were unbearable, while on deck it was worse still. Dust filled our nostrils, sifted down our backs, and smote the eye like a dash of acid. Birds floundered, crying wildly, through space, and fell helpless on the deck.”