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After thousands of years, a dormant volcano in the Aleutians might show signs of waking up

Over 20 m thick coarse airfall tephra deposited on point on northeast Davidof.
Matt Loewen
Alaska Volcano Observatory
Davidof rises over 1,000 feet out of the Bering Sea, the remnant of an ancient caldera. It’s located in the Rat Islands in the far Western Aleutians, nearly 200 miles west of Adak. It has likely remained dormant for thousands of years, but a swarm of earthquakes that began Dec. 7 has researchers keeping a close watch.

The three Aleutian volcanoes that have been erupting simultaneously in recent months could be joined by a fourth. Davidof Volcano in the Western Aleutians has remained inactive for thousands of years. But a series of earthquakes measured around the dormant volcano has some researchers wondering if Davidof is waking up.

Davidof rises over 1,000 feet out of the Bering Sea, the remnant of an ancient caldera. It’s located in the Rat Islands in the far Western Aleutians, nearly 200 miles west of Adak — so far west that it’s actually considered the Eastern Hemisphere.

The volcano hasn’t been active at least since the time Russian explorers started keeping records in 1760. But researchers say it has likely remained dormant for much longer than that, perhaps as long as 10 thousand years.

But a swarm of earthquakes shook the area beginning Dec. 7, and that has researchers keeping a close watch.

Matthew Haney is a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. He said that even though Davidof is not considered historically active, “the process of subduction that leads to volcanoes along the Aleutian Arc hasn't stopped,” and “the possibility remains for there to be activity.”

He says the earthquakes increased in magnitude over the week, which could suggest the earthquakes weren’t caused by tectonic shifts, but rather by magma flowing beneath the volcano.

“With tectonic earthquakes, typically the first one is the largest one, and then there’s a bunch of aftershocks afterwards. So I think this one caught our attention last week because the largest earthquake was not the first one,” Haney said. “So that is something that catches our attention that's more like a volcanic earthquake sequence.”

Davidof is too remote to threaten any communities, but Haney says it could pose a hazard to airline traffic. The AVO raised the warning level at Davidof to yellow last Friday due to the possibility of just that.

Haney says that in 2008 a similar string of earthquakes hit an area east of Adak around Kasatochi Volcano.

“A similar question arose: are these earthquakes that we’re measuring tectonic or volcanic? And in that case, the earthquake activity intensified and the volcano ultimately erupted in 2008 in a large eruption,” Haney said.

The earthquakes around Davidof continued through the weekend, but they don’t seem to be intensifying.

Still, Haney says, AVO’s team will be keeping a close watch from their vantage point 1200 miles away.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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