The Novarupta-Katmai eruption of 1912 - largest eruption of the twentieth century; centennial perspectives

Professional Paper 1791




The explosive outburst at Novarupta (Alaska) in June 1912 was the 20th century's most voluminous volcanic eruption. Marking its centennial, we illustrate and document the complex eruptive sequence, which was long misattributed to nearby Mount Katmai, and how its deposits have provided key insights about volcanic and magmatic processes. It was one of the few historical eruptions to produce a collapsed caldera, voluminous high-silica rhyolite, wide compositional zonation (51-78 percent SiO2), banded pumice, welded tuff, and an aerosol/dust veil that depressed global temperature measurably. It emplaced a series of ash flows that filled what became the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, sustaining high-temperature metal-transporting fumaroles for a decade. Three explosive episodes spanned ~60 hours, depositing ~17 km3 of fallout and 11±2 km3 of ignimbrite, together representing ~13.5 km3 of zoned magma. No observers were nearby and no aircraft were in Alaska, and so the eruption narrative was assembled from scattered villages and ship reports. Because volcanology was in its infancy and the early investigations (1915-23) were conducted under arduous expeditionary conditions, many provocative misapprehensions attended reports based on those studies. Fieldwork at Katmai was not resumed until 1953, but, since then, global advances in physical volcanology and chemical petrology have gone hand in hand with studies of the 1912 deposits, clarifying the sequence of events and processes and turning the eruption into one of the best studied in the world. To provide perspective on this century-long evolution, we describe the geologic and geographic setting of the eruption - in a remote, sparsely inhabited wilderness; we review the cultural and scientific contexts at the time of the eruption and early expeditions; and we compile a chronology of the many Katmai investigations since 1912. Products of the eruption are described in detail, including eight layers of regionwide fallout, nine packages of ash flows, and three lava domes that followed the explosive pyroclastic episodes. Changes in the proportions of coerupting rhyolite, dacite, and andesite pumice documented for the fallout and ash-flow successions, which are locally interbedded, permit close correlation of those synchronously emplaced sequences and their varied facies. Petrological correlation of the sequence of deposits near Novarupta with ash layers at Kodiak village, 170 km downwind, where three episodes of ashfall were recorded (to the hour), provides key constraints on timing of the eruptive events. Syneruptive collapse of a kilometer-deep caldera took place atop Mount Katmai, a stratovolcano centered 10 km east of the eruption site at Novarupta, owing to drainage of magma from beneath the Katmai edifice. Correlation of ~50 earthquakes recorded at distant seismic stations (including 14 shocks of magnitude 6.0 to 7.0) to fitful caldera collapse provides further constraints on eruption timing, because layers of nonjuvenile breccia and mud ejected from Mount Katmai during collapse pulses are intercalated with the pumice-fall layers from Novarupta. Structure of the Novarupta vent, a 2-km-wide depression backfilled by welded tuff and inferred to be funnel-shaped at depth, is described in detail, as is the 4-km-wide caldera at Mount Katmai. Discussions are also provided concerning: (1) the impact on global climate of the great mass of sulfur-poor but halogen-rich aerosol ejected into the atmosphere by the rhyolite-dominated eruption; (2) chemical and mineralogical effects of the fumarolic acid gases; and (3) the timing of several syneruptive landslide deposits sandwiched within the pumice-fall sequence. Secondary posteruption phenomena characterized include impounded lakes, ash-rich debris flows, phreatic craters on the ignimbrite sheet, responses of glaciers to the fallout blanket and to beheading by caldera collapse, growth of new glaciers inside the caldera, and gradual filling of the caldera lake. Structure, composition, and ages of the several andesite-dacite stratovolcanoes, closely clustered near Novarupta, all of which remain fumarolically and seismically active, are summarized. But among them only Mount Katmai extends compositionally to include basalt and rhyolite. The petrological affinities of 1912 magmas erupted at Novarupta with pre-1912 Katmai lavas are outlined, and various chemical, mineralogical, isotopic, and experimental data are assembled to construct a model of preeruptive magma storage beneath Mount Katmai. The monograph concludes by comparing the 1912 eruption with several other well-studied large explosive eruptions, 14 of them historical and 9 prehistoric. Finally, we retrospectively review the historical difficulties in understanding what had actually taken place at Katmai in 1912 and the century of progress in volcano science that has allowed most of it to be figured out.

Geospatial Extents

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
The Novarupta-Katmai eruption of 1912 - largest eruption of the twentieth century; centennial perspectives
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Alaska Volcano Observatory
xiv, 244 p.; Appendices; E-Book Version
United States;Canada
Alaska;British Columbia;Washington;Yukon
Other Geospatial:
Novarupta Volcano;Mount Katmai