The southern portion of Atka Island is older than the north, with some volcanic rock dating back 5 million years. The active northern part of the island once had one large cone, which was lost in a large eruption, and is now peppered with several smaller volcanos.
A volcanic complex can have several vents, and a widely varying composition of lava. Seismic activity within a complex can be difficult to pinpoint the source of the activity. Which vent is rumbling now? Some of those smaller vents have developed into stratovolcanoes.
Korovin Volcano has been very active in recent times, while Mount Kliuchef last erupted in 1812. The Atka Complex recently was elevated to a Level Yellow, due to seismic activity on the island. Interestingly, the swarm of activity is not near the known suspects, but several kilometers the the west and southwest, and approximately 10 miles from the community of Atka.
The Aleutian Chain was rocked by an incredible storm over New Years. The wonderfully named Bomb Cyclone, set a record in Alaska for a low pressure system.
High and low-pressure systems form when air mass and temperature differences between the surface of the Earth, and the upper atmosphere, create vertical currents. In a low pressure system, the air currents flow upward, sucking air away from the earth’s surface like a giant Shop*Vac.
Eareckson Air Force Base on Shemya Island recorded the record low pressure at 924.8 millibars.
A sea buoy off of Amchitka Island, registered a wave at 58.1 feet. Winds at Shemya hit gusts of 83 mph. This was an impressive storm that pummeled the outer islands of the Aleutian Chain. From Atka to Adak, the islands were seeing 40-50 foot waves and hurricane force winds.
St Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta saw high winds and blizzard conditions when the storm hit Alaska’s mainland.
Unlike a hurricane, which extract heat from the ocean, as they grow in power, a maritime cyclone creates energy by drawing together warm and cold air masses. It’s the energy created when the warm air rises and the cold air sinks, that gives rise to the cyclone.
The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.
Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.
In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.
Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.
The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.
The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.
The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.
Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.
The Shishaldin Volcano on Unimak Island; Photo credit: USGS
Mount Shishaldin, which is one of the most beautiful and perfectly cone-shaped volcanos on the Aleutian Chain, has been restless since July 2019, with several short burst eruptions. At the end of December, temperature elevations were measured at its summit, and seismic activity had increased substantially.
This past Friday morning, Shishaldin erupted, sending ash five miles into the air. Volcanic lightning, and the glow of lava near the summit, could be seen from Cold Bay.
Shishaldin from high; Photo credit: AVO
At an elevation of 9373′, Mount Shishaldin is the highest peak in the Aleutians. Shishaldin is relatively young, with its cone less than 10,000 years old, although remnants of an ancestral volcano can be found on Unimak.
Mount Shishaldin, postcard image, circa 1910; Photo credit: J.E. Thwaites
The first known ascent of Shishaldin happened in 1932, when G. Peterson and two others, made the climb to the summit. It is widely understood, that native Aleuts and visiting Russians certainly made the climb previously, but their ascents were not documented.
Local climbers are known to still make the climb to Shishaldin’s summit, then ski back down its flank.
The U.S. destroyer, Abner Read, struck a Japanese mine off the coast of Kiska Island on the 18 August 1943 during the Battle of Kiska. The explosion tore off the ship’s stern. There were over 300 men on board the Abner Read that day, many were in their bunks in the stern when the mine blew at approximately 1:50am. 71 sailors died, but 20 were hauled out of the frigid Bering Sea waters.
The Abner Read after the explosion off the coast of Kiska
The crew was able to keep the destroyer afloat. The ship was shored up as best they could, the main compartment was kept water tight, and a homemade rudder was attached. Two U.S. Navy ships then towed the Abner Read to port.
The Abner Read in floating dry dock
Within months, the Abner Read had its stern repaired, and the destroyer rejoined the war.
In July of this year, a research team funded by NOAA, discovered the Abner Read’s stern off the coast of Kiska Island. It’s general location has been known, and the team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware used multi beam sonar to locate the wreckage. They then sent a remote operated submersible down to the stern, which was in 290 feet of water.
Photo credit: NOAA
The stern section measures 75 feet long and 18 feet high, and is now covered in marine life.
Gun on Abner Read stern section; Photo credit: NOAA
Daryl Weathers was a 19 year old seaman on the Abner Read. He is the last known survivor from the destroyer on that August day in 1943. Weathers is 94 now, and lives in Seal Beach, California. When told that the stern section had been found, Weathers expressed surprise saying, “That’s the end of the world up there.”
For its wartime service, the Abner Read received four battle stars from the Pacific Theater. In November of 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese launched a kamikaze attack. A Japanese dive bomber (VAL) made it through the anti aircraft fire, although it had been hit. The bomber was able to drop one of its bombs down the destroyer’s smokestack, blowing up the engine room. The VAL then crashed across the main deck, setting it in flames. The Abner Read sank within hours.
The Abner Read is struck by a kamikaze attack in November 1944
The Japanese had occupied Kiska Island on Alaska’s Aleutian Chain since June of ’42. After the brutal Battle of Attu, Allied forces expected the same type of defense of Kiska from the Japanese.
Japanese Type A mini submarines on Kiska Island
Leading up to the invasion, the U.S. Air Force bombarded the Japanese positions on Kiska. In June of ’43, 407 bombing sorties were sent to the remote island, and even more in July. Japanese troop level was at just over 5100 men. Resupply of the island had become by submarine only.
Japanese tunnel to the beach
In August, bombing sorties increased even more. On August 4 alone, 135 sorties dropped 304,000 pounds of explosives on Kiska.* No Japanese troops were sighted by the bomber pilots, but that was not unusual, since the Japanese went underground during the raids.
Allied troops landing on Kiska Island
7300 combat troops landed at the main beach head. They were greeted by six dogs wagging their tails. One of the dogs was “Explosion”, the pup that was with the Navy weather station crew that was on Kiska when the Japanese invaded the island the previous June. In all, 34,426 Allied troops were a part of the invasion, which included 5300 Canadians.
As troops moved across the foggy island, occasionally a bomb or booby trap was set off, but no enemy soldiers were to be seen. Still, shots were fired into the fog by the jumpy soldiers.
The Japanese were no longer on the island. Realizing they could not defend Kiska after losing Attu, they had evacuated the island two weeks before the invasion.
92 Allied troops were killed, and 221 wounded. Most came when the destroyer Abner Read struck a Japanese mine causing 118 casualties. 4 Canadians and 17 Americans were killed on Kiska, and 50 were wounded, many by friendly fire in the fog. 130 men suffered from trenchfoot, of which only one was a Canadian due to their proper footwear.
Guns of Kiska
The Americans would not learn how or when the Japanese evacuated the island until after the war ended.
The Japanese Type A midget sub on Kiska today
Today, Kiska is part of the Aleutian Islands Wilderness, and the Japanese occupation site a National Historic Landmark.
The Navy Weather station crew on Kiska prior to invasion. Explosion is front and center.
Mount Cleveland from Concord Point; Photo credit: AVO/USGS/John Lyons photographer
Lava flow was seen in the crater of Mount Cleveland this week, about 80 meters across. With lava flowing over the active vent, the odds of an explosion to clear that vent has increased substantially. With that in mind, the warning level on Cleveland was raised to Orange.
Great Sitkin Volcano on 17 June 2018; Photo credit: AVO/Alaska Airlines Captain Dave Clum
Great Sitkin Volcano, also on the Aleutian Chain, which had a minor eruption on June 10th, is still smoking. AVO has Great Sitkin’s warning level at Yellow.
A picture of the Aleutian Tigers at the Glenn Curtiss Museum
While at the Glenn Curtiss Museum, I was excited to see the P-40 Warhawk being restored, and talk to several volunteers involved with the extensive rebuild.
Stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage in 1942, was the 11th Fighter Squadron, also known as the “Aleutian Tigers”. The Aleutian Tigers were commanded by Lt. Col. John Chennault, who was the son of Gen. Claire Chennault, the commander of the famed “Flying Tigers” in China.
P-40 Warhawk, 11th FS, 343rd FG
The 11th Fighter Squadron was one of 4 squadrons making up the 343rd Fighter Group, and were assigned the task of defending the Aleutian Islands during WWII. The 11th FS flew their final combat mission in Alaska in October of 1943. The 343rd FG remained in Alaska flying patrols until the end of the war.
Long before WWII and the Japanese invasion of the two islands in the Aleutian Chain, Attu Island was part of the earliest Federally protected wildlife areas.
This year is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Attu, and the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are both commemorating the battle with several discussions, gatherings and art displays. Unfortunately, most are being held in Anchorage, but the big city, that’s a little closer to Alaska, has its merits too.