Aniakchak and Bristol Bay

NASA's Earth Observatory, Flickr, Sept. 15,2000

The Big Lie that the opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine bases everything on is that Bristol Bay is the Land That Always Was, with nothing ever changing, with nothing ever disturbing the pristine idyllic wilderness inhabited by Friends of Wildlife, and good stewards of the land and fish and other small and not so small furry creatures.

They go further and claim that any real or imagined insult that the ecosystem suffers will irrevocably and for all time damage, destroy, and otherwise annihilate all future salmon returns into Bristol Bay. This claim requires past knowledge of what has gone on in Bristol Bay over the last several thousand years. And folks, it ain’t pretty.

The problem with this story is that Bristol Bay sits downwind from volcanoes in the Alaska Range. It was last dusted several times in 2009 when Redoubt dumped more volcanic ash (essentially frothed glass) across the region than the mine could do over the course of years of operation. And the salmon seem to be doing just fine. Hazard assessment by the State of Alaska estimates that the region got dusted every 10 – 35 years.

There is another volcano about 100 miles south of Bristol Bay called Aniakchak. It has a caldera nearly six miles across. Normally calderas are created in titanic eruptions. This one was no different, having ejected some 23 cubic miles of stuff during a single massive eruption in 1645 BC. Note that the Pebble Partnership proposes to move less than a cubic mile of crushed rock from the ground over the period of 50 – 75 years of operations. Note also that the Pebble Partnership simply does not possess the means to distribute this cubic mile of crushed rock anywhere but in a big pile of mine tailings. The prevailing winds at the time of the eruption were from the south and ash can be found all the way to the Arctic Ocean where a few inches were deposited on the North Slope. Nearer the volcano, the ash was deeper, with a foot or two deep in places in and around Bristol Bay and much deeper closer to the volcano on the Alaska Peninsula.

The eruption had another unpleasant surprise, this was a volcanic tsunami created when a pyroclastic flow entered the water of Bristol Bay. It pushed water ahead of it and deposited a foot or two of debris as much as 60 feet above mean high tide well inland. The hazard assessment can be found here: Think about how flat the north part of Bristol Bay is and you get a small idea how far inland that tsunami traveled.

Since the huge eruption, Aniakchak has erupted many times with the most violent one being around 400 years ago. It last erupted in 1931.

There is a small lake in the caldera floor named Surprise Lake. This lake is connected to the sea. There is a small, but healthy salmon run into the lake. Using the logic of the anti-Pebble people, this salmon run should not exist. For that matter, neither should the salmon runs into Bristol Bay after the massive eruption 3500 years ago. Yet they do. One should wonder why.

Compare the relative threat and damage of a modern mine and a well known, and well documented active volcano that has dumped many, many cubic miles of frothed glass, acids, metals, on thousands of square miles of the region in the space of a day or two. To the anti-mine activists, the mine is far too dangerous to allow to proceed. Yet the volcanic threat is completely ignored or brushed off as irrelevant. Yet it is not.

The Renewable Resources Coalition, the larger environmental left, and the people who support them thrive on the lack of basic knowledge of our geologic past here in Alaska. This is a violent land, one where large chunks of land regularly move over 30 feet up, down and sideways in minutes during a major quake. One where a mountain top disappears in a matter of hours during massive volcanic eruptions. One where nature regularly does things that mankind can only dream about. And after all this, the salmon do just fine. Perhaps they are naturally adapted to this. Perhaps the greens don’t know as much about nature as they think they do, which would be my guess.

We Alaskans have learned over the years how to work the land, develop the natural resources, and take superb care of plants, animals and fish while we do so. The Pebble Mine is not anything new nor is it being proposed in any area that is particularly sensitive, special or untouched by massive natural disasters in the not so distant past. Allow the anti-mining greens to kill this project, and they will be well positioned to kill off every other resource development project in the state. Their arguments never change. Neither do the facts.