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Alaska Remembers Novarupta Eruption

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Novarupta lava dome, June 2006. (Image credit: Alaska Volcano Observatory / University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute.)

"June in Kodiak is a month of endless light. Even after midnight, the sun softens more than sets. But one hundred years ago, late in the afternoon on June 6, 1912, daylight was snuffed out completely."

So reflects Alaska writer Sara Loewen in an essay commemorating her hometown’s harrowing experience of Novarupta, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

PHOTOS: America's Greatest Earthquake

On that fateful June afternoon in 1912, a tremendous blast in southwest Alaska sent tall, dark columns of tephra and gas some 20 miles skyward. For the next 60 hours, the spewing didn’t stop. Finally, a thick extrusion of lava plugged the vent (leaving behind the spiky lava dome in the foreground of the photograph above).

Truly an extreme eruption, Novarupta:

  • Exploded 10 times more powerfully than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens
  • Spewed a greater volume of ejecta than all of Alaska’s recorded eruptions combined
  • Buried 40 square miles around the vent with a pyroclastic flow up to 700 feet deep, creating the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, site of present-day Katmai National Monument
  • Produced three times more ashfall than the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the second largest eruption of the 20th century
  • Would ground air traffic across North America if it happened today

In 1912 the inhabitants of Kodiak, Alaska, only about 100 miles southwest of the volcano, were among the first people to realize Novarupta's severity. In her essay “Winter in June,” Loewen describes how people watched curiously as the dark cloud drift toward them.

Not realizing that their town was about to be buried, many of them were initially more afraid of the unusual thunder and lightning the cloud brought with it than they were by the falling ash. By 7 p.m., though, the air was suffocating, so thick with ash that people could not see a lantern an arm’s length away. The town’s 500 residents were eventually evacuated.

For firsthand insight into the Novarupta experience, listen to Kodiak residents read individual historical accounts of the eruption and its aftermath.

Other large eruptions in this part of Alaska are certain to happen again.

This story was provided by Discovery News.