Jim Jordan is trying to piece together a story that began more than 3,400 years ago, when Alaska’s Aniakchak volcano catastrophically erupted.
Jordan, a core faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE), says layers of ash deposited by the volcano could reveal the answers to many questions.
Exploring an ancient disaster
Just back from Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve to launch a two-year field study with collaborators from the National Park Service (NPS), Jordan will return next summer to dig through ash layers in the coastal and lowland areas, forty to sixty miles from the volcano. He’ll search primarily for evidence of how the landscape responded to this eruption, specifically how soon salmon streams might have recovered, which would have attracted people. Students from AUNE and other schools will help him investigate geological and archeological evidence for clues to the story.
Perhaps because the Aniakchak eruption was so violent, humans and other biota may not have returned to the area for another 1,000 to 1,500 years. At a minimum, this event profoundly affected the ecology and geology of the region. How did the eruption affect the succession of plants, animals and people who inhabited the Aniakchak area? How did the ecosystem recover from this cataclysm? Did biota move away permanently or did they evolve adaptive strategies different from those previously observed?
“Why did it take so long for people to resettle there?” Jordan asked.
This is Jordan’s specialtyâ€”studying the processes of landscape disturbance during the time period since the last glaciers melted, about 12,000 years ago. He researches how natural systems respond to cataclysms like fires, floods, earthquakes and volcanoes. “Because of the size of Alaska, this kind of research has barely been touched,” Jordan said. The Aniakchak area is particularly rich in possibilities. It’s one of ten major volcanic centers on the Alaska Peninsula, a section of the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the world’s most active seismic regions.
The study results will have application in the modern world. “We can use historical data to help us understand rates and magnitudes of disturbance and to develop contingency plans to deal with potential hazards and with the vulnerability of people and ecosystems in areas like these,” Jordan said. Remember Mount St. Helens? “For a good decade after that eruption [in 1980] everyone understood the consequences of developing in active volcanic areas,” he said. “But over time, people have kind of forgotten. We have not seen a slowing of development of these areas. Urban areas like Seattle are so driven by the need for economic growth that they run the risk of ineffective environmental planning for geologic hazards.”
AUNE is collaborating on the project with the Cultural Resource Management Division of the National Park Service through a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit network agreement, a national consortium of federal agencies, academic institutions and other partners. NPS will use the research in its management, interpretation and education.