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 the tenth of June radio communication was finally re-established, and for the first time the refugees learned the details of the eruption and where it had occurred. Until then most had assumed it had taken place on Kodiak Island.
By the afternoon of the tenth the skies had cleared, and the Manning returned to the town. (The Printer steamed to Seward, seeking help.) Now for the first time the townspeople could see the extent of the damage. Nellie Erskine, a cousin of Hildred, wrote her mother: “Poor old Kodiak, it certainly is a wreck. Whether people can live here is not at all settled. Of course it will take time and patience. It certainly is awfully discouraging, but we are not worrying. The feeling of thankfulness that we were saved is too strong yet. The ashes are about two feet on the level but in places it is higher than your head. People are dazed and dirty. They are despondent still. But I guess we can make something out of it if we try real hard.”
The volcano remained active for many months after the initial explosions. Earthquakes continued to shake the peninsula, and heavy smoke frequently filled the air. The only record of this period of waning activity is the diary of C. L. Boudry of Cold Bay, who tried without success to penetrate the Katmai area. In his entry for November 23 he described the condition of the volcano as still quite active. “The volcano still raising cane.… I will try to go there in winter or spring but can’t make it now. I try 3 time. Cannot see netting for smoke and after you are 10 or 12 miles the acid raise hell… the acid burne the close you got on and raise blister on your hands. The worst shake we got was on the 20th Sept. Twestie the houses bad and knock the toiling from the houses down—also I was outside, just throw me as ef I ad received a good rock on the side—Not much dogs, they get blind from acid.”
By the time it was over, an area the size of the state of Connecticut had been covered with a layer of ashes to a depth varying from 10 inches to 10 feet. Abrasive ash dust covered all vegetation. Moose and caribou starved to death after they wore their teeth down feeding on the plants. Fish suffocated in the ash-filled streams. The wild fowl population was virtually eliminated over large areas. Blinded by the ashes and the darkness, many birds simply flew around aimlessly until they broke themselves against tree limbs or cliff faces or headed out to sea where, exhausted, they drowned. Great numbers of Kodiak bears, some permanently blinded by the ashes and acid rains, began foraging for food near the town and the outlying farms and had to be shot.
Ultimately, the effects of the Katrnai eruption extended far beyond the confines of the Alaska Peninsula. Acid rains fell 1,500 miles to the south, and housewives in Vancouver were horrified to find their laundry disintegrating on the clotheslines. On June 19 scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, studying solar radiation in Bassour, Algeria, found the sky so contaminated with haze that they had to forgo their search until September. At first they assumed the conditions were local; later, they learned the haze spread around the world, the result of millions of tons of fine dust hurled into the stratosphere by the Katmai explosions.
The effects of that layer of dust were far-reaching. The amount of solar radiation in the Northern Hemisphere was reduced by 20 per cent, lowering the temperatures an average of 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit, almost twice the impact of the Krakatoa explosion. The seriousness of these statistics can best be gauged by the estimates that it would take only a drop of two or three degrees Fahrenheit in the average temperature sustained over a long period of time to bring on another ice age. The summer of 1912 was unseasonably cold across most of the United States and Europe. That year the National Geographic Society sent the first of six expeditions to the region, but the party could not make its way inland.
In 1915 the second expedition entered the Katmai area. Led by Dr. Robert F. Griggs, a geologist from Ohio State University, these three men were the first human beings to visit the site after the eruption. The country they passed through was completely devastated. All food and water had to be packed in; there was no prospect of living off the land.
“The whole scene,” Griggs wrote later, “looked like the entrance to another world, so foreign was it to anything within our experience. … The desolation of the country beggared description.” Winds kicked up terrific dust storms during which visibility dropped to a few feet. “The dust heightened the already weird character of the landscape, giving it an indescribably uncanny appearance. The effect was much like that of a heavy snowstorm. This was increased by the outlines of the bare dead trees. ”