A Volcano, a Fishing Boat, and a Narrow Escape

Two government biologists barely made it off a remote Alaskan island alive. No one had known it was ready to erupt.

Steam pours from Kasatochi, a remote volcanic island in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain, following its August 7, 2008, eruption. (Jerry Morris; The Atlantic)

On the evening of August 6, 2008, on a remote island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain, the side of a volcano began crumbling into the turquoise waters of its crater lake. Gulls fled from the falling rock. The wind whistled around Chris Ford as he peered over the lip of the crater. “It’s starting to get tumbling down pretty good,” he shouted into his radio.

Ford had climbed up the volcano’s steep slope to get a bird’s-eye view of the small island he and Ray Buchheit were stationed on as seasonal field technicians with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He needed to find a patch of earth big enough to land the Coast Guard helicopter he believed was on its way to evacuate them.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been sending teams of researchers to Kasatochi, a volcanic island located almost 400 miles west of the Aleutians’ largest city, Unalaska (population nearly 5,000). Kasatochi swelled with life. Leach’s and fork-tailed storm petrels flitted around the island’s crags. Pigeon guillemots and tufted puffins trawled coastal waters in search of fish. Click beetles burrowed underneath patches of grass. Kelp beds flourished.

Before the 2008 eruption, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent teams of research technicians to the island each summer to study its diverse ecosystem. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fish and Wildlife’s primary Aleutian research vessel, the R/V Tiglax, had dropped Buchheit and Ford off that May with four months’ worth of supplies and a Zodiac skiff. Once onshore, they hauled their bags up to the cramped hut where they would spend the rest of the summer. “It was just Chris and I with a pile of gear watching the Tiglax disappear,” recalls Buchheit. Over the course of the summer, the men tallied auklets and storm petrels, tucked away at the end of the Earth.

They first felt the earth shake in early August. Buchheit, who grew up in Montana, had never been to Alaska before and was warned that there might be earthquakes. “Tremors, rough guess: Three every five minutes,” he wrote in his journal at the time. “That’s probably a conservative estimate.”

Beneath Buchheit and Ford, magma was quickly creeping up through the Earth’s brittle crust, breaking through rock hardened by the passage of time. Neither of the men—nor the agency they worked for—could have predicted that the tiny temblors that rocked the island that summer were warnings of an even greater threat lurking below, or that they would barely make it off Kasatochi alive.

The volcanic eruption that almost killed Buchheit and Ford more than a decade ago changed the way Fish and Wildlife approaches research on the Aleutians. But until now, few outside of the Alaskan-research community have known the details. For the first time, both men have agreed to tell the wider world their story—one that illustrates the dangers of remote fieldwork and highlights a fraught battle to better understand, track, and measure Earth’s movements in volcanic landscapes.

Buchheit and Ford first reported the flurry of earthquakes during an August 3 radio call. On the other end of the call was Lisa Spitler, their contact at the nearest Fish and Wildlife field station, located about 50 miles away in Adak, Alaska. After checking the website of the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, which hadn’t detected any sizable quakes, Spitler emailed the Anchorage-based Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint project of the federal and state governments and the University of Alaska. (Spitler confirmed the sequence of events, which were detailed in documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, but declined to speak on the record.)

Left: Ray Buchheit, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife research technician stationed on Kasatochi, coordinates evacuation efforts via satellite phone prior to the August 7, 2008, eruption. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) Right: The once rocky cliffs of Kasatochi, coated in a thick layer of volcanic ash. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“The question came in: ‘What do you guys know about volcanic activity at Kasatochi?’” Christopher Nye, a volcanologist at the observatory, told me. “And everybody in the room said, ‘Where’s Kasatochi?’”

The Aleutian Islands are splattered along one of Earth’s most active tectonic-plate margins, the Ring of Fire. Ninety of the region’s more than 140 volcanoes have been active within the past 10,000 years, and roughly 50 of those have erupted since record-keeping began, around 1760. But experts at the Alaska Volcano Observatory currently surveil just 31 of them closely. Funding is scarce, and the observatory has to prioritize monitoring volcanoes that are close to large population centers or located beneath busy flight paths and could threaten the islands’ human communities.

Geologists from the observatory had visited Kasatochi just once, after a report of bubbling in the lake in 2005, but the volcano wasn’t listed as a threat. Observatory staff told Spitler that seismic stations on Great Sitkin and Adagdak Islands, about 20 and 50 miles away, respectively, weren’t registering abnormal activity. The closest station, located to the east, on Atka Island, was broken.

“It’s just hard and expensive to work out there,” Christina Neal, who has worked at the observatory for more than 25 years, told me. Seismic stations in the Aleutians are often pelted by rain, snow, and wind; corroded by sea salt; and ravaged by curious bears. Sometimes the stations, powered via solar panels and batteries, simply run out of juice.

As the earthquakes became stronger and more frequent, beginning on August 4, they started to register at other seismic stations across the Aleutians. Scientists throughout the state scrambled to track what was happening beneath the volcano. Initially, observatory scientists suspected that the rumbles were caused by shifts along a nearby fault. But as more data poured in—seismic squiggles across a wall of monitors—it became clear that the earthquakes could herald a bigger problem. Observatory volcanologists put a call in to Spitler’s supervisor, Jeff Williams, aboard the Tiglax: It was probably time to evacuate the two researchers.

Through a flurry of emails, radio transmissions, and satellite-phone calls, Fish and Wildlife personnel in the Aleutians began organizing an evacuation on August 6. The Tiglax, traveling its end-of-summer route to pick up researchers stationed on the chain’s islands, sped toward Kasatochi but wouldn’t arrive for 24 hours. Spitler called on the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue Ford and Buchheit, but its nearest ship was 450 miles away, according to documents provided by the Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife. A Coast Guard helicopter stationed on Adak was down for maintenance.

Late in the sunlit evening of August 6, Spitler, running out of options, radioed the local fishing community to see if anyone could pluck the biologists from the island.

Al Giddings, a local fisherman, and his deckhand, Eric Mochuziki, volunteered for the rescue. Giddings knew the Bering Sea well; he jig-fished for black cod and halibut and had recently bought permits that allowed him to charter passengers throughout the Aleutians. “I remember picking up the distress in [Spitler’s] voice,” Giddings says. “We knew that it was a terrible situation that was building, and we were the only option.” Early the next morning, they motored out of Adak’s harbor, roughly 50 miles southwest of Kasatochi.

Back on the island, Buchheit and Ford waited for Spitler’s updates. Then, at 10:20 a.m. on August 7, a nine-minute, 5.8-magnitude tremor jostled them as they ate cereal in their bunks. Inside the cabin, shelves buckled, and canned food tumbled onto the floor. The rotten scent of sulfur filled the air. “I think that’s when we kind of knew, Woah, shit, this thing’s going to blow up,” says Ford.

The mood was tense at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. “We started to see a type of seismicity that we'd call volcanic tremor,” Chris Waythomas, the observatory’s chief scientist at the time, told me. Waythomas says the phenomenon that causes volcanic tremors is similar to what happens inside an organ pipe: In the same way that air bounces back and forth up the pipe when an organist hits the keys, liquid magma reverberates through volcanic conduits on its way to Earth’s surface. These lengthy vibrations increase in duration and intensity as magma reaches the surface and are different from earthquakes, which release rapid bursts of energy caused by slips along fault lines.

Buchheit and Ford knew that Giddings and Mochuziki were coming, but they had not yet heard from them over the radio. As a last resort, they thought, they could attempt to motor their skiff over to Great Sitkin Island, roughly 20 miles away. But in the five- and six-foot waves that regularly batter the Aleutians, their 10-foot skiff would almost certainly take on too much water to make it that far. “Once you make that decision to leave the island, that's a big-red-button decision,” Buchheit says. Still, they didn’t have much choice. They hastily packed what they could from the hut. Buchheit ducked beneath the cabin’s door frame one last time, taking care not to bump his head on the buoy nailed there, and the pair headed down to the beach.

Finally, around 11:30 a.m., while Buchheit and Ford were rushing their belongings to the shore, Giddings told them over the crackling radio that he was roughly seven miles away from Kasatochi. Giddings says he could hear them running to the rendezvous point. “At the time, I remember thinking: These guys are in trouble.”

The sea churned as Buchheit and Ford steered their skiff out to Giddings’s boat. As they climbed aboard, Ford realized that he had left his camera in a dry bag on the beach. Despite the chaos unfolding around them, the pair zipped back to shore to grab it. “It seems ridiculous” in hindsight, says Buchheit, but “all of Chris’s memories were on that camera.”

Finally back on Giddings’s boat, they sat on the bow and watched Kasatochi slowly melt into the fog. Ford snapped one last photo of the island. It was eerily still in that moment—a lush, verdant paradise.

Less than 30 minutes later, at 2:01 p.m., the island erupted. The crater walls collapsed, sending out a pulse of energy that registered at seismic stations across Alaska. Plumes of hot rock surged down the hillsides, vaporizing everything in their path. Within a matter of minutes, the island’s thriving ecosystem was virtually extinguished. Volcanic ash shot 45,000 feet into the air, grounding flights out of Anchorage and stranding roughly 6,000 passengers. In a plane flying through British Columbia, the pilots smelled rotten eggs and saw yellow haze in the cockpit. A cloud of sulfur dioxide emitted during the eruption eventually circled the globe twice.

Left: The R/V Tiglax (pronounced TEHK-lah), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife research vessel, motors off of the coast of Kasatochi island. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) Right: Chris Ford, one of two U.S. Fish and Wildlife research technicians stationed on Kasatochi at the time of the 2008 eruption. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; The Atlantic)

But on Giddings’s boat, the sounds of the sea muffled Kasatochi’s blasts; fog obscured its ash. As the boat pulled safely into Adak’s harbor around 3:30 p.m., no one aboard knew how close they had come to dying. Later, when Giddings scraped the sea salt from his windows, he realized he was also pulling off flecks of volcanic ash.

Two weeks after the eruption, Buchheit returned to Kasatochi, along with Waythomas, to survey the damage. The freshly created earth beneath their feet was still warm. “It was the first sort of sensation that we felt when we got out of the helicopter,” Waythomas said.

In the rush of the evacuation, Buchheit and Ford had left a number of items behind, including an acoustic guitar, a pair of Birkenstock sandals and, most important, Fish and Wildlife computers that held more than a decade’s worth of data about the island’s bird colonies. Upon his return that day, Buchheit tried to locate the field cabin to see if anything could be salvaged. It was buried beneath 100 feet of ash. “Had they stayed there,” Waythomas said, “they would not have survived that.”

The eruption hasn’t deterred Buchheit from conducting research in other remote parts of the globe. He’s since worked in Alaska’s Yukon Delta and Antarctica. He argues that conducting fieldwork in remote locations such as the Aleutians carries an inherent risk, but that it still needs to get done. “You can’t go to these places and assume zero risk,” he says.

Despite the logistical challenges and dangerous conditions, Williams, now the deputy manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, also maintains that this work is crucial. “As public stewards of natural resources—that’s land and wildlife—our job is to know what’s happening to those resources,” he says.

Now when Fish and Wildlife organizes field camps each summer, the agency pays close attention to Earth’s less noticeable signals, such as the faint smell of sulfur. Teams sent to islands throughout the Aleutians are thoroughly prepped on the risks and trained in spotting the warning signs of geologic activity. All of the research crews stationed in the Aleutians now have access to satellite email, and many of them have GPS devices with instant-messaging capabilities.

In the decade since Kasatochi erupted, as its human visitors have adjusted their methods, nature has gone right back to its old ways. The auklets have returned to the island. Sea lions are again holding raucous court on its shores. And each year, researchers steer skiffs from the Tiglax to Kasatochi to make sure that those ecological milestones are properly documented.

Researchers returned to the volcanic island two weeks after the eruption to survey the damage. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)