June 06, 2005

Volcanic Passions

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park, Alaska

I know today is the anniversary of another important event, but I see that it is also the anniversary of the beginning of the eruption in 1912 of Novarupta, one of the complex of vents making up Mt. Katmai, located on the Aleutian Peninsula of Southwest Alaska.

This was the largest volcanic eruption on the North American continent of the 20th Century, thirty times larger than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. More than 7 cubic miles of ash was erupted in only 60 hours, covering 46,000 square miles in greater than 0.40 inch of ash. According to Robert Griggs, who explored the area several years later for the National Geographic Society:

"The magnitude of the eruption can perhaps be best realized if one could imagine a similar outburst centered in New York City. All of Greater New York would be buried under from ten to fifteen feet of ash; Philadelphia would be covered by a foot of gray ash and would be in total darkness for sixty hours; Washington and Buffalo would receive a quarter of an inch of ash, with a shorter period of darkness. The sound of the explosion would be heard in Atlanta and St. Louis, and the fumes noticed as far awa y as Denver, San Antonio, and Jamaica." (Robert F. Griggs, National Geographic Magazine, 1917, v. 81 no. 1, p. 50)

The pyroclastic flow filled the neighboring valley, thereby creating what is now the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The picture above was taken from the ranger station overlooking the valley. From there, you can hike down to the floor on a short trail. I've been there several times - it is an absolute moonscape, made all the more remarkable by the knowledge that the ash is, in places, hundreds of feet deep. Fascinating stuff.

Of course, I daren't mention this to my seven year old. One of her classmates recently brought in the DVD of the Discovery Channel's Pompeii: The Last Day. After watching it, she spent several days demanding loudly to know how I was so sure there are no volcanoes in Virginia. I went to fairly great lenghts on the topics of plate techtonics, the Pacific Ring of Fire and so on. I also assured her that if there were a volcano in Virginia, somebody would have found it by now. Finally, in response to her further demand, I had to give her my absolute promise that volcanoes are non-migratory and would therefore not come here from the West Coast. Eventually, I mollified her, but not by much. I'm afraid a fresh visit to the subject so soon after our last talk would only, as it were, cause her to erupt again.

Posted by Robert at June 6, 2005 01:28 PM

"volcanoes are non-migratory" heh heh That is so cute!! Like in her little head, she pictures them traveling across Route 66 in some huge convoy to get her.

I remember learning about Pompeii in 3rd or 4th grade - and I had nightmares about the people frozen in the positions of trying to run away. That absolutely haunted me.

Posted by: red at June 6, 2005 01:42 PM

Not such as easy conversation if you lived in Seattle. Biggest worry in Virginia is the occasional wayward hurricane.

Posted by: The Colossus at June 6, 2005 02:04 PM

Yes, she's a hard nut to deal with sometimes.

I can't remember when I first learned about Pompeii, but I do remember seeing some of those images, too. I'd really like to go some day - the Missus has been there and says it's incredibly interesting. On the other hand, I understand Vesuvius is still very much an active volcano, some I'm not sure if the Llama-ette would give me permission to go anywhere near it.

Posted by: Robert the LB at June 6, 2005 02:11 PM

Actually, I think that Katmai was the largest eruption of the 20th century not merely in North America but in the entire world.

I was fascinated by volcanos as a youngster, and I was disappointed that there weren't any active peaks in northern Utah. The family had a copy of the National Geographic with the article on the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes; it was my favorite issue.

Posted by: Don at June 6, 2005 02:41 PM

Yeah, it'll be interesting when The Lad gets to be that age. "No, son, there's no need to worry, the nearesy mountain that could conceivably erupt in your lifetime is umm.... oh, at least 50 miles away.

Posted by: Brian B at June 6, 2005 03:52 PM

We're working on those migratory volcanoes. The big question is do we want them to have feet or wings.

Posted by: rbj at June 6, 2005 08:02 PM
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