Northern Exposure - students digging
Photo credit: Pavel Izbekov. A student uncovers a pale ash layer in a stream bank for Dr. Mitsuru Okuno of Fukuoka University while Nicolaysen obtains a GPS location of the site.

By Jenny Lewis

At the edge of the earth, the dead speak to the living. Psychics can't translate these messages from the dead. What we need, instead, are scientists.

Over 20 cold days last summer, geology department chair Kirsten Nicolaysen and a team of 16 other geologists, archaeologists, paleoecologists and undergraduate students pulled data  from the remote, volcanic Islands of the Four Mountains, which lie in the Aleutian archipelago between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

Prehistoric humans who lived on the now-uninhabited islands faced violent environmental conditions, and the stories their artifacts tell may reveal how they coped with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, horrific storms and tsunamis. Remnants from these prehistoric populations could teach 21st century humans how to adapt to our own disasters.

"Those who lived on these islands had to deal with rising sea level. We are living in a time when we expect rising sea level and actually see rising sea level," Nicolaysen said.

Catastrophes that tend to give less warning, like earthquakes—which, along the Aleutian subduction zone can create tsunamis that impact the West Coast—also look similar across centuries. Geological signatures left behind by past tsunamis can provide a record of the frequency with which major earthquakes occur. And the earliest human activity here is also not well understood; data collected from the relatively unexplored IFM will paint a picture of life and death on the Pacific Rim.

Funded primarily by a National Science Foundation grant with collaborative support by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Alaska Volcano Observatory and the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, Nicolaysen and her team’s research centers around the IFM’s eponymous “mountains”—volcanoes Herbert, Tana, Carlisle and Cleveland. The project, “Prehistoric Resilience in the Islands of the Four Mountains,” of which Nicolaysen is a co-primary investigator with Dr. Dixie West and Dr. Virginia Hatfield of the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute, and Dr. Breanyn MacInnes of Central Washington University, will span two summers in the field and an additional year of academic synthesis.

Mt. Cleveland and Carlisle volcano
A faint plume from the fuming Mt. Cleveland testifies to the volcano’s activity while a skiff transports members of the science team back to the Maritime Maid. Carlisle volcano can be seen in the distance beyond the clouds. Photo credit: Anne Fulton.

Mount Cleveland Reawakens

Before Nicolaysen’s team arrived last July, little excavation of ancient living sites on the IFM had been done, partly due to the remoteness of the location: it’s an 18-hour boat trip from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a coastal town not exactly convenient to reach itself.

“The histories of these volcanoes are essentially undiscovered,” Nicolaysen explained. “They’re tiny, they’re volcanically active and they’re surrounded—flanked on either side—by major straits with these really dangerous currents.”

The archeologists on the team estimate that early human settlers first reached the IFM six to seven thousand years ago, having crossed the Bering land bridge to North America, migrating south along the Alaskan coast, then eventually striking out west again into the central Aleutians. Though indigenous people still populate other parts of the area, the IFM have sat deserted since bloody conflicts between the native inhabitants and Russian fur traders who arrived in the mid-18th century.

Nicolaysen’s interest in the IFM dates back to her early days as a professor when she first explored Mount Cleveland.

“Mount Cleveland erupted explosively in February and March of 2001, really reawakening after a period of dormancy; since that major eruption, it has erupted almost once or twice a year every year since then,” she said.

Field notebooks are important documents, the value of which may last beyond the lifetime of the geologist taking them.“In my mind, Cleveland was this great volcano, and I wanted to understand more of its magmatic history, what was driving it, but there were also four other volcanoes in the neighborhood that no one has ever sampled.”

The IFM’s relatively unstudied nature makes them fertile ground for a variety of researchers’ work. Scientists from Central Washington University, the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Fukuoka University in Japan, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Alaska Volcano Observatory are participating; the project is unusual in its multidisciplinary bent.

The prehistoric village sites on the IFM are owned by the descendants of the Unangan people who once lived there, so before the team traveled to the site, they secured permission to excavate and camp there from the Aleut Corporation, a public entity that represents the Unangan people of the area.

“We could not have done this project without their permission,” Nicolaysen said. “All artifacts will be returned to the Aleut Corporation in a few years after the research on them is complete. We will submit reports to them to share what we glean of their history.”

Storm Front

In the field, the students and scientists met for initial briefings at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, then journeyed together to the lonely Aleutian archipelago. The team set up camp on Chuginadak Island, home to Mount Cleveland, later moving to Carlisle, staying close to the remains of ancient barabaras—communal, in-ground living spaces that 60 to 100 people once shared. The four young volcanoes form an unusually close cluster and on calm days rise from the sea fog like impassive sentinels.

“The first week or so lulled us into complacency because we had beautiful weather. The AVO collaborators established both geophysical monitoring stations, and the initial archeology and geology surveys went really well. And then our first storm blew in,” Nicolaysen remembered.

Calm days in the IFM turned out to be the exception, not the rule. Nicolaysen’s team had been the first to bring a helicopter with them to the islands. They kept it strapped to the deck of the 86-foot Maritime Maid when not in use, and the helicopter and its crew were instrumental in allowing the scientists to move safely about the islands. Unfortunately, it also posed unique challenges when the weather wasn’t cooperating.

An Aleutian storm is a fierce thing. Imagine hurricane-force gusts of wind and fog so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

“I have lived through these storms before, but not many of the team had,” Nicolaysen said. “They were concerned—the helicopter nearly blew off the back of the ship.”

Geology major Lydia Loopesko ’15, one of three undergraduates nationwide who received fellowships from the Keck Geology Consortium to join the fieldwork, was at base camp when the worst storm struck, but she heard the ship’s crew had to get creative to keep that helicopter from sliding into the ocean.

“Somebody got a pair of Daisy Dukes somewhere,” Loopesko said. “They put one of the rotors through a leg of the shorts, a rope through the other leg, and tied it up.”

Loopesko had flown in helicopters before, but never any that had to take off and land from the relatively small target of a boat. Not that this made her nervous.

“I trusted the pilot. He had flown for that TV show The Deadliest Catch in way worse weather than what we had,” she said. That show, which follows crab fishermen as they do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, is filmed in the changeable seas outside Dutch Harbor.

Loopesko’s research involved studying two different sedimentary outcrops near pre-historic settlement sites. The data she collected will become her senior thesis as she works to determine which layers of sediment can be traced to the local volcanoes; comparing her data with the archeologists’ descriptions, then using radiocarbon dating to tie it all together, she will be able to determine what was left behind by people (a cultural layer) versus what was left behind by the earth’s violence.

“It’s not always easy to tell the difference between what’s a cultural layer and what’s not,” she said. “You might find a flake of obsidian in the dirt and know that’s a cultural layer, for example, or you find a lava flow and you know [the Unangan people] couldn’t live on a lava flow, so that’s not.”

Originally a history major adamant about her distaste for science, Loopesko noticed early in her college career that while her history classes went on field trips to the library, her geology classes went on field trips to, for instance, volcanoes. She soon fell for science, and last winter wrote her competitive application to join the IFM project.

A First Time for Everything

In addition to providing fodder for Loopesko’s senior thesis, one immediate practical outcome of the fieldwork was the installation of monitoring equipment on Mount Cleveland by scientists from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, something that had never been done before.

Because plumes of ash from an eruption can damage sensitive electronic equipment on aircraft, and about 10,000 commercial airline passengers fly over the Aleutians between North America and East Asia every day, the danger of an unmonitored eruption has been real. Now, scientists will be able to track Cleveland’s activity and alert the FAA should rerouting air traffic be necessary.

The installation of monitoring equipment was just one of the firsts at the IFM this summer: Nicolaysen and her colleagues discovered activity demonstrating that long-quiet Tana volcano is still young and active; they took the first water sampling of Tana hot springs and fumaroles that comprise its previously undiscovered hydrothermal fields; and Nicolaysen and colleague Dr. Pavel Izebekov of the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute and the Alaska Volcano Observatory were the first geologists ever to step foot on Herbert, let alone sample the volcano.

“One of our goals was to get to Herbert. On one of our last days in the field, Herbert kept coming out of the mist and fog. We didn’t know if we were going to make it” because of the weather, Nicolaysen recalled.

The helicopter made it to Herbert.

Nicolaysen takes temperature measurements of the lake in Tana volcano’s crater. Photo credit: Dan Leary“When we got back to the ship someone said, ‘You’re the first geologist to stand on that volcano.’ My jaw dropped because I hadn’t realized that. It’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. And tell my grandchildren about.”

Having returned to their home institutions, the researchers are still coordinating—via Skype—what complex human and environmental mechanisms they located in the IFM. Nicolaysen is working specifically on understanding the volcanic history of the IFM’s four volcanoes. In her lab, she’s also analyzing found tools, revealing chemical fingerprints that can be compared with the geochemistry of area lavas.

Nicolaysen’s lab employs sophisticated equipment for non-destructive analysis. One powerful tool, the pXRF (a portable X-Ray Fluorescence spectroscoper) looks like a ray gun, and can describe an object’s chemical composition in seconds. A sticker on the stabilizing stand for the pXRF warns the user that it is extremely high-tech—it would cost $30,000 to replace.

During the fall semester, Nicolaysen and her students used the pXRF to analyze two unusual metal artifacts believed to represent the early period of Russian occupation in the IFM. The first turned out to be part of a knife—the blade—and the second, a compositionally similar chunk of metal. One of the team’s Keck students will work to compare the composition of the samples to possible sources; the team hopes to match the metals to a particular part of the world, then determine how these metals ended up where they did, and even to which group of inhabitants they may have belonged.

Research into the past lives of those who inhabited the IFM will take time to complete. The team, plus a new crop of students—three from Whitman—will return to the islands this summer for another 20 days of fieldwork then spend the final year of Nicolaysen’s $85,000 NSF grant drawing conclusions from the trove of data they expect to accumulate.

The work of translating these long-silent messages into lessons for modern humans may be slow, but there are plenty of benefits for the researchers in the meantime.

As Nicolaysen put it: “History, archaeology and volcanoes—it’s just fun. It’s like living in a National Geographic episode.”

Mt. Cleveland erupting in 2006, photographed from the International Space Stationmicroscopic image
Left: Jeff Williams, NASA

Nicolaysen’s research considers the very large, like Mt. Cleveland erupting in 2006 as photographed from the International Space Station, and the very small, as in a lava sample as it appears under a microscope. She explained: “In May, Cleveland and Carlisle volcanoes are still plenty snow-covered, convenient for showing how ash at the summit and volcanic debris from this May 23, 2006, eruption cover or cut across the older snow.

“Emily Johnson ’13 and Katherine Elkind ’14 studied several samples of the lava ejected during the 2001 eruptions from Mt. Cleveland using the Scanning Electron Microscope obtained via a National Science Foundation grant to Whitman in 2009. In this back-scattered electron image taken by Elkind, black blobs are holes in the gray volcanic glass created by gas bubbling out of the magma just prior to eruption. The white-gray shapes are two distinct minerals that show a frozen chemical reaction. The central, heart-shaped pyroxene is the variety pigeonite, a magnesium-iron silicate mineral with ~18% calcium; just prior to eruption, this mineral started melting. The surrounding blebs are orthopyroxene, a cousin mineral that has <7% calcium. The orthopyroxene grew as the destabilized pigeonite began losing calcium and aluminum to the surrounding magma, now a solidified glass. This incomplete reaction testifies to the very quick decompression caused by the magma rising rapidly through the crust. Elsewhere in this sample, other minerals show that this formerly deep ~1100° C magma mixed with a ~900° C silica-rich magma a few kilometers below the mountains summit vent.”

Whitman acquired the FEI Quanta 250 environmental scanning electron microscope (E-SEM) through a $408,000 National Science Foundation grant. Nicolaysen was key in seeking the SEM to replace a 20-year-old, obsolete microscope; the E-SEM can magnify from six times to one million times, operates in three different vacuum modes, and has the power to zoom in on something as small as three-millionths of a meter, like a cell.

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