Novarupta Volcanoe Erupts and Blows Mt. Katmai’s Top

Before June 5, 1912, Mt. Katmai towered about 7,000 feet above the pines in the northern part of the Alaska Peninsula, 100 miles from the mainland and above the small village of Katmai. Occasionally, steam poured from its sides and more often from its base, but no one remembered the volcano erupting.

Mt. Katmai Rumbles and Blows Its Top

On Wednesday, June 5, 1912, two Eskimo families stayed behind in their village of Katmai, Alaska, while their neighbors went to their summer fishing grounds. They stayed behind and witnessed the most powerful volcanic explosion of the 20th century.

The eruption began on June 6, 1912, when a series of strong, shallow earthquakes shook the land and at 1 p.m, Mt. Katmai exploded. The noise could be heard down the coast at Juneau, 750 miles away, and at Vancouver, Washington, 1,500 miles away.

The Eskimo eyewitnesses watched Katmai’s top blow off, rocks hurl out to sea, burning pumice shower all around, and the water in Katami Bay, 20 miles from the mountain, boil. The only other people near Katmai when it exploded, some native Russians, found shelter in a cave about 15 miles away. From another village a little further away came reports that the upper half of Katmai was gone and the mountain was burning.

A Second Explosion and Darkness Covers the Land

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of June 6, 1912, a second even more violent explosion occurred. A column of steam and ashes rose several miles into the air and was visible for hundreds of miles. Intense darkness blanketed several thousand square miles. This darkness, inky as midnight, lasted for 60 hours. Other explosions which could be heard but not seen, punctuated the darkness. Violent earthquakes accompanied the explosions and were felt by ships far out at sea.

Katmai Mountain had blown away and the ground for several miles around the base of the mountain was covered with a layer of lava, ashes, and pumice stone. This layer was over five feet thick and fine dust from the Katmai explosions covered areas as far away as 100 miles.

The Landscape is Radically Changed

The largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century had radically changed the landscape. By June 8, 1912, the summit of Katmai had disappeared, collapsing into itself like a cake falling in the middle with its sides intact.

At the same time, about 6.3 miles to the west, a volcano named Novarupta threw seven cubic miles of blistering rock and ash over everything. The ash traveled twelve miles and covered the former Knife Creek Valley, an area that later became known as the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”.

Ivan Orloff Writes About Ashes and Hell

Ivan Orloff wrote to his wife Tania at home in far away Russia from a fishing village near Katmai. He said that all of the rivers were covered with ashes and everything was “darkness and hell and thunder and noise.”

When the volcano was finally silent on June 9, the ash cloud blanketed southern Alaska, most of western Canada and several of the western United States. Fine volcanic dust sifted into the higher regions of the atmosphere and was visible as a haze. This haze shut out part of the sun’s rays, giving it a reddish hue and shutting off part of its heat from the earth.

This fine, hazy dust remained in the air for months and swept around the earth with its atmospheric currents. It made the summer and autumn of 1912 noticeably cooler than normal.

Scientists Discover Novarupta and Not Mount Katmai Had Erupted

At first, scientists thought that Mount Katmai had erupted, but later after scientists had studied the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”, they discovered that almost all of the material there came from Novarupta and not Mount Katmai.

John Eichelberger of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Fairbanks hypothesized that a large pocket of molten rock may have supported the former summit of Mount Katmai. He said that the flow of magma or molten rock toward Novarupta could have been triggered when a dike of another type of magma rose from below and pierced and drained the foundation of Mount Katmai.

The magma may have moved from Mt. Katmai six miles west through an underground channel to explode through the surface at Novarupta. Today, a lake more than 800 feet deep fills the space that used to be the inside of Mount Katmai. At least three glaciers calve into the green water and a 300 foot waterfall flows from the crater’s west wall. The volcano still rumbles.

Scientists Predict that Katmai and Novarupta Will Erupt Again

Mt. Katmai and Novarupta are in the middle of a volcano chain that stretches to Russia and beyond, and the Alaska Peninsula is on an active convergent boundary. It is almost certain that the volcanoes will erupt again. A Novarupta magnitude eruption will have a significant local and global impact. The Mt. Katmai eruption deposited three times more ash and debris than the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Volcanic Ash Could Once Again Disrupt Global Climate and Commercial Jet Traffic

The local impact of a Mt. Katmai eruption could include pyroclastic flows and lava flows that could result in fatalities and financial losses. Ash from a Novarupta size eruption could damage jets flying over 1,000 miles away and could ground commercial jet traffic across North America. Novarupta eruptions could change global climate. Volcanic ash in the atmosphere could alter surface temperature patterns and rainfall levels in many parts of the world.

It is probable that a 21st century Ivan Orloff will write to his wife about “darkness and hell and thunder and noise.”


Barbara and Robert Decker, Volcanoes in America’s National Parks, Odyssey Guides, Odyssey, 2001.

Ned Rozell, Alaska Science Forum, July 16, 2001. “The Sudden Disappearance of Mount Katmai,” Article #1551, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

James Cornell, The Great International Disaster Book, Scribner, 2nd Edition, 1976.

Charles A. Wood, Jurgen Kienle, eds. Volcanoes of North America, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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