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Eruptions to Ashes: How Alaska's Volcanoes Shaped a State

Published On: Jul 22 2013 01:10:00 PM AKDT

It's a story about volcanic formation, eruption and the building blocks of Alaska as we know it. 

"The North American plate, which is what Alaska is built on, is being pushed underneath--that is what we call the Pacific plate," said Alaska Volcanic Observatory spokesman John Power. "Basically that material under the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is being pushed under Alaska."

These subterranean forces have created more than 100 volcanoes in Alaska, 52 of which have been historically active, Power said. This has added to Alaska's mystique and unique identity but has also been a source of terror at points in history.

More than 100 years ago, Mount Novarupta destroyed wildlife and removed an entire village from existence. This moment provides a defining chapter in Alaska's story in the Katmai National Park.

"The eruption of Novarupta in 1912 dumped 700 feet of ash over what has now come to be known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes," said John Quinley, spokesman for the National Park Service. "Today you can hike out into the volcanic area, down into some of these amazing steep rivers which have cut through the ash layer."

Gordon Pullar is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pullar has studied how the Alutiiq people were affected when the biggest volcanic eruption in the 20th century happened at Mount Novarupta.

"At the time people thought the world was coming to an end," Pullar said. "All they knew was it had gone completely dark in the middle of the day and the ash started falling."

The world, however, didn't end that day. The Alutiiq people were able to get on the Coast Guard cutter Manning and eventually they relocated to Perryville, a town named after the cutter's captain who helped save an entire village.

Alaska Volcanic Observatory's John Power noted that throughout Alaska's history these types of volcanic eruptions have prompted social and economic changes.

"What has really begun to be the biggest impact in recent times has been the effect of airborne volcanic ash on aircraft," Power said. 

It was December 15, 1989 when Mount Redoubt violently coughed volcanic ash miles into the air. Flight KLM 876, a Boeing 747, was caught in the ash plume. All four engines flamed out and the plane plunged toward the mountains. Four minutes later crew members managed to restart two of the jet’s engines and the plane limped back to Anchorage International Airport where it landed safely.

"If you think about Alaska's position on the globe, any airplane that's taking off from North America into Asia, or vice-versa, is going to traverse over the Alaska volcanoes," Power explained.

What could have been an aviation catastrophe in '89 turned into a learning lesson for others. The equipment used to detect volcanoes and the protocol used by aviators in the region has improved.

Alaska's volcanoes have literally formed the state. They have changed the history of its people and have created world-renowned parks. But as the saying goes, history often repeats itself, so it's nearly certain Alaska's volcanoes will continue to have a hand in writing Alaska's story.

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