Research Team Sets Out For Islands of Four Mountains

The Islands of the Four Mountains as seen from the International Space Station in 2013. Cleveland Volcano is at center. (Courtesy: NASA)
The Islands of the Four Mountains as seen from the International Space Station in 2013. Cleveland Volcano is at center. (Courtesy: NASA)

A group of researchers set out from Unalaska this week to a remote part of the central Aleutians: the Islands of the Four Mountains. The 16 scientists are beginning a three-year mission in territory that’s unpredictable – and largely unexplored.

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Weather was clear and sunny in Dutch Harbor on Saturday while the research team loaded up their charter vessel with food and supplies. As most of them know from experience in this part of Alaska, conditions can change in an instant.

Still, lead archaeologist Dixie West was hoping for the best.

“I’m expecting fair skies and wonderful winds, and that we’re going to find some exciting information about how volcanic impacts and tsunamis impacted prehistoric humans,” she said, standing on the spit dock Saturday afternoon.

West works with the University of Kansas. She headed out to the uninhabited Islands of the Four Mountains on Sunday — with her, a group of experts who study volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, climate and biology and prehistoric settlements.

This will be the first year of a three-year expedition, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Next year is more field work, and in year three, they’ll write up their findings.

West and the others will stage their research on Chuginadak Island, near one of the most active volcanoes in the Aleutian chain — Mt. Cleveland. They’ll be working in the volcano’s shadow, studying how prehistoric Unangan peoples might have lived there.

“So hopefully we’ll be able to add something to modern information about how people should expect volcanoes to behave, and how possibly better to react to them,” she said.

Most of the researchers took a boat to the island group. A few followed by helicopter — the same one that’ll transport them between the ship and the island’s shore, since there isn’t a dock in the Islands of the Four Mountains.

One who went on the chopper is Max Kaufman, a research technician with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. He’s going to help install seismometers on Cleveland Volcano for the first time.

“Getting these stations in will really help us understand its sort of background behavior,” he said on Saturday.

And through their work, he said, they also “hope to provide some degree of safety for the crew working out there, doing the archaeological studies” — because, he says, you never know when the volcano might wake up. It’s been a little restless in recent days, but Kaufman’s hoping it’ll stick to its usual low-level behavior.

Still, he admitted that the Islands of the Four Mountains are a bit of a daunting destination.

“It seems quite remote, despite its proximity to Dutch Harbor,” he laughed.

So Kaufman and the other researchers will have to be ready for anything the islands throw at them — and so will the crew of their charter vessel, the Maritime Maid. It’s been used for scientific charters before. Skipper George Rains says he’s used to navigating the Aleutians’ tricky coastlines.

“It’s a challenge — it’s always probably been a challenge, from the days the natives were out there,” Rains said as he stood in the wheelhouse of the Maritime Maid. “But basically, you just have to be careful of the weather, move around and stay out of it.”

Twelve members of the team can stay aboard the ship, while the rest will be camping on shore. Most of them will stay out on-site for next three weeks — hoping to start uncovering some of the mysteries that the Islands of the Four Mountains have in store.

You can follow the researchers’ progress on Facebook, or on Twitter @Islandsof4Mtns.