Journey into the Valley of
Ten Thousand Smokes
By NED ROZELL
October 27, 2009
Almost 100 years after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th
century, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is still a moonscape
of ash and volcanic rock, without a tree or shrub in sight. The
valley, located on the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutians hook
on to mainland Alaska, is a silent reminder of the power and
potential of Alaska's volcanoes.
Hikers traverse the
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula, walking
on a sheet of ash and volcanic rock more than 500-feet-thick.
Photo by Ned Rozell.
I once visited the valley as one of a dozen people on a 10-day
field trip with John Eichelberger, formerly of the Alaska Volcano
Observatory, now with the United States Geological Survey Volcano
Hazards Program in Reston, Va. As we approached the valley the
first day on a bus ride from Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park,
the story of the 1912 Katmai eruption began to unfold.
A few miles before we reached
the valley, we saw the skeletons of spruce trees, bone white
and surrounded by green bushes. The trees have been standing
dead since early June 1912, when falling ash killed them.
Getting off the bus and hiking into the valley, we left Alaska
for another world. As we walked deeper into the valley on rounded
rocks that felt like styrofoam balls, the willows disappeared,
the sparrows stopped singing, and the mosquitoes vanished. A
grizzly bear had pressed a few tracks into the valley floor,
but we saw no other signs of life.
Botanist Robert Griggs named this desolate, beautiful place "The
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes" when he visited here on a
National Geographic expedition in 1916. At the time, four years
after the eruption, steam poured from vents all over the valley.
Because the thick blanket of ash and volcanic rock has cooled
since then, the valley no longer steams, but the dramatic landforms
still inspire the feelings of Griggs and his companions in 1916.
"We were overawed," he wrote.
In three days of the summer of 1912, a volcano Griggs named Novarupta
(Latin for "new vent,") transformed 40 square miles
of the world's best bear habitat into instant badlands, burying
the downwind valley in more than 500 feet of ash and volcanic
rock. Novarupta spewed 100 times more material than Mount St.
Helens and sent skyward a plume that probably reached 20 miles
high. Sometime during the eruption, Mount Katmai, six miles from
Novarupta, was decapitated. In place of its summit today is a
magnificent crater lake surrounded by 300-foot walls that echo
the thunder of glaciers that now calve into the lake.
In 1883, when Indonesia's Krakatoa
volcano ejected half as much ash and rock, 35,000 people died.
Because earthquakes that preceded Novarupta's eruption scared
residents of two nearby villages from the area, Novarupta's human
death toll was zero. More than one foot of ash fell on Kodiak,
100 miles away from Novarupta, in the days following the eruption.
Roofs collapsed under the weight of the ash and the steady gray
ashfall prevented townsfolk from seeing a lantern held at arm's
length at times.
In his report for the National Geographic Society, Griggs wrote
that if such an eruption occurred on Manhattan Island, those
in Chicago could hear the explosions, Philadelphia residents
would be buried under one foot of ash, and fumes from the eruption
would tarnish brass doorknobs in Denver. On Manhattan Island,
"there would be no survivors," Griggs wrote.
A panorama of magnificent
Image courtesy John Eichelberger.
Much to the relief of the locals in both places, Alaska is not
Manhattan; Alaska is a place with more than 100 volcanoes, 42
of which have erupted since people began writing down such observations
Today, the Alaskans who keep the closest eye on volcanoes work
for the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Scientists there take the pulse of more than two-dozen of the
most active volcanoes in Alaska with networks of seismometers
that detect earthquakes within volcanoes. They also check out
satellite images each day, looking for ash plumes or increases
in temperature on volcano surfaces that indicate activity, perhaps
someday as dramatic as the eruption that created the Valley of
Ten Thousand Smokes.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
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