This month marks the centennial anniversary of the eruption of the Novarupta Volcano in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska — the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. On June 6, 1912, the giant eruption blackened the skies with smoke. With an eruption ten times the force of Mount Saint Helens in 1980, mountains collapsed and earthquakes were felt as far as Washington, D.C. Nearby villages were completely buried in ash, many of which were permanently destroyed. The city of Kodiak, located 115 miles away, was buried in two feet of ash.
“The eruption did not kill anyone, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect people’s lives,” said Katie Ringsmuth, President of the Alaska Historical Society.
Only Greece’s Santorini in 1500 B.C. displaced more volcanic matter than Katmai. But although the catastrophe destroyed homes and shook the continent, it also led to scientific research and the establishment of a national park.
National Geographic Society’s botanist Robert Griggs led an expedition in 1916 to determine how ecological systems recover from these catastrophic events. He named the volcano and its surrounding landscape the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. The year 1918 marks the establishment of Katmai National Park and Preserve, which was also named a national monument.
Today, the valley attracts wildlife enthusiasts and tourists from around the world.
“People love going to the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes,” said Ringsmuth. “There’s certainly a sense of place and connection that speaks to the power of nature, and I think that the valley today isn’t just important to Alaskans, but it is important to people all over the world.”
This year’s centennial celebration features a number of events across Alaska to raise awareness about the region’s history. Ringsmuth hopes the anniversary will inspire new research about an area that has become so important to geologists.
To promote education about the volcano, the Alaska Historical Society held a statewide poster contest for elementary school children about the extraordinary eruption. While some young artists depict the landscape surrounded by bears and wildlife, others illustrated images of the 1912 catastrophe.
“Those posters also reflected a darkness,” Ringsmuth said. “The terror and the fact that people lost their homes was reflected in a lot of those stories [that Alaskan children were told]. So they’re still being passed down to the next generation.”
And although the smoke has dissipated, the volcano’s stories are passed down. 100 years later, this large Alaskan volcano stands as a strong reminder of the power of nature.
“It’s my hope that it will inspire new research, new exploration of the history of what’s really going on here,” Ringsmuth said.