October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Sixty-eight years before Mount St. Helens blew, Alaska’s Mount Katmai erupted—and nearly brought on a second ice age
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.”
Closer to the site of the eruption but partially protected from its effect by a range of mountains were a small group of native fishermen at a summer camp 30 miles from Mount Katmai. On June 9 one of them wrote a despairing letter to his wife. “A mountain has burst near here, so that we are covered with ashes, in some places 10 feet and 6 feet deep. All this began on the 6th of June. Night and day we light lamps. We cannot see the daylight. In a word it is terrible, and we are expecting death at any moment, and we have no water. All the rivers are covered with ashes. Just ashes mixed with water. Here are darkness and hell, thunder and noise. I do not know whether it is day or night.… The earth is trembling; it lightens every minute. It is terrible. We are praying.”
Although the explosions were heard as far south as Ketchikan, 900 miles away, the outside world was slow to realize the magnitude of the eruption. It was not until the lives and property of the people in the city of Kodiak, 100 miles to the west of Mount Katmai, were threatened that authorities began to understand that a volcanic eruption without precedent in North America was in progress.
A range of mountains to the east obstructed the view of the mainland and blocked all signs of the explosions, and so the five hundred inhabitants of Kodiak had no warning of what to expect. The island had been rocked by severe earthquakes, but jolts of that kind were common in the area and no notice was taken of them. June 6 dawned fair and clear with a strong breeze from the northeast. About 5:00 P.M. a peculiar dark cloud appeared on the horizon and began to move toward the town, a cloud unlike any the townspeople had ever seen before, shapeless, grit textured, and expanding. A few moments later the first ashes fell, large gray flakes like dirty snow. At first the people treated them as a great curiosity, carefully collecting samples as souvenirs.
But the ash fall increased with frightening rapidity and by 6:00 P.M. it was so thick that people had trouble discerning the shapes of buildings more than a dozen yards away. By 6:30 the last vestiges of daylight disappeared and total darkness settled over the countryside—this at a season of nearly twenty-four-hour daylight. The air grew thick and almost impossible to breathe. Thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed.
The rain of ashes continued throughout the night, and by early morning 5 inches had accumulated. At 9:10 A.M. the ashes ceased falling, and the townspeople believed their ordeal was over. They had no idea what had happened. The wireless station had burned down after being struck by lightning, and the static in the air rendered useless the wireless on board the U.S. revenue cutter Manning, which had docked to take on coal at the time of the eruption.
At noon on June 7 the ashes began to fall once more, and by midafternoon the cloud of dust was so thick that it became impossible to see a lantern held at arm’s length. Sulfurous fumes filled the air, and the rumble of avalanches of ashes down distant mountain slopes could be heard. The confidence that had carried the townspeople through the first stage of their ordeal now broke. Many spoke of the destruction of Pompeii. Some panicked. Others, lost in the darkness, gave up and lay down in the ashes.
Hildred Erskine, one of the town’s schoolteachers, said: “The ash was falling so heavily that our greatest anxiety was whether we should be able to get another breath. The gases were nauseating and to add to our terror, earthquake shock became almost continuous. The terrible bombardment grew louder and louder; and the ash sifted through cracks around the windows and doors. … We were sure our time had come.”
The next morning the town’s doctor brought Hildred and her cousin to the Manning . “We tied dampened cheese-cloth over our faces, but the ash penetrated several thicknesses of the material. We followed fences and ditches and somehow reached our destination. The officers of the Manning turned on the searchlight, but the ash was so dense that even its powerful light gave no aid.”
Conditions worsened, and it was decided to evacuate the island. Many crowded on board the Manning ; others had to go aboard the barge St. James , which was towed by the tug Printer. In midmorning on the eighth of June the Manning , followed by the Printer , pulled away from the dock and headed out the narrow channel toward the open sea, leaving behind a broken settlement of crushed roofs, ash-flooded houses, and massive drifts of dust.
On board the Manning Hildred Erskine noticed that “the men who had shoveled ash from the decks were worn out and their eyes were in a pitiful condition; the ash had penetrated the bandages they wore over their eyes and had painfully cut their eyeballs. A little native woman, ill with tuberculosis … somehow found her way to the ship, but died very shortly. …”
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. ”
As Griggs and his companions slowly worked their way back from the sea toward the site of the eruption, the countryside became more desertlike. “The stillness was oppressive,” Griggs said. “One could travel all day without hearing a sound but his own footfalls and the plunge of rushing water. … The bark had dropped off the dead trees, leaving gaunt white skeletons standing up out of the deep ash deposits. We saw no signs of animal life around our camp except a pair of bald eagles which flew over at a great elevation, a few mosquitoes, and a single hummingbird moth, which seemed strangely out of place in such a valley of death. ”
The expedition advanced up the Katmai Valley, appalled to find the destruction there even more complete than down below, something they would have thought impossible a few days before. When they arrived within five miles of Mount Katmai, they found the mountain had been completely disemboweled in the eruption. What had once been a towering, three-peaked, 7,500-foot-high summit was now a stump. Through the binoculars Griggs traced the sweeping arc of a great crescentic rim and could only guess at the stupendous crater resting within.
“Coming back into the lower valley after the total destruction of the country in the shadow of the volcano,” wrote Griggs, “was like regaining the earth after an exile in the inferno.” The lower valley, which had once appeared so much like a desert to them, now lifted their spirits. “The broken remnants of the former trees appeared the most luxurious verdure. The branches seemed alive with singing birds. The mountains seemed covered with herbage from base to summit. And this was country that a few days before had seemed utterly devastated in comparison with Kodiak!”
In the summer of 1916 Griggs led another expedition into the area. On July 19, under clear skies, the party began its assault on the slopes of what had once been Mount Katmai, determined to reach the top and discover what lay inside. The climb proved surprisingly easy, and by late afternoon the team reached the summit. The knife-sharp rim fell away 2,000 feet below them. “We found ourselves hanging over the brink of an abyss of such immensity that… we were powerless even to guess its size.… In the bottom lay a wonderful lake, of a weird vitriolic robin’s-egg blue, milky, like one of the glacial lakes of Switzerland. The middle of this was set with a horseshoe island, the remnant of a cinder cone evidently thrown up in the last spasms of the eruption. Around the margin hissed columns of steam, issuing from every crevice.”
On July 31 Griggs’s party explored the Katmai Pass, suspecting that the persistent and unusual cloud formations in the area might be the result of recent volcanic activity. When they reached the pass, they found the floor shot through with cracks and fissures that discharged clouds of steam. Griggs was about to order a return to camp when he suddenly spotted a puff of steam above a nearby hill. Exhausted from the day’s activities, he almost decided to forget about it when he changed his mind and started forward “to have a look.” The party reached the top of the little hill and looked down the other side into the valley below. The explorers stood transfixed, for they had discovered, quite by accident, one of the great natural wonders of North America, “unseen and unsuspected by white man and native alike until this hour.
“The whole valley,” Griggs wrote, “as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally, tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor. … Some were sending up columns of steam which rose a thousand feet before dissolving.” He estimated there were at least one thousand fumeroles whose columns exceeded 500 feet in height. “It was as though all the steam engines in the world, assembled together, had popped their safety valves at once and were letting off surplus steam in concert. ” Griggs named his discovery the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Awesome as the destruction had been, the land soon began to heal itself. For two years after the eruption much of Kodiak Island was a bleak, ash-strewn desert. Yet when Griggs returned in the summer of 1915, he was amazed to find that the recovery of the area had been rapid beyond expectation and that considerable revegetation had occurred the previous year. Meadows of grass as tall as a man now covered the ash slopes. The ecstatic townspeople told him that the eruption was “the best thing that ever happened to Kodiak.” “Never was any such grass before, so high nor so early,” Griggs’s hotelkeeper said. “No one ever believed that the country could grow so many berries nor so large, before the ash.” The townspeople assumed the luxurious vegetation occurred because the volcanic ash was a good fertilizer. However, Griggs’s investigations showed just the opposite. The ash was as sterile a soil as could be imagined. “It destroyed the smaller plants and gave the quick-growing species, which are of the most interest to man, more favorable opportunities for growth than they had ever enjoyed under normal conditions. It helped the surviving plants very much as weeding improves a garden.”
Griggs returned to the States to plead for the creation of a national park to protect the Katmai area. This was a volcanic outburst, he argued, “such as the geologist finds recorded in the rocks of past ages but has never before had the opportunity to observe in the world of the present.” Katmai, he wrote, was an incomparable laboratory in which the effects of volcanism might be studied. There were so many natural phenomena of interest there, both to the general public and the scientist, that the area should be set aside.
On September 24, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson took time out from his conduct of the war to issue a presidential proclamation establishing the Katmai National Monument, in order to preserve “this wonderland … of popular scenic, as well as scientific, interest for generations to come.”