Barren Islands, Kodiak Archipelago

Barren Islands, Kodiak Archipelago

by | Jan 24, 2022

Barren Islands are the northernmost of the Kodiak Archipelago, located near Lower Cook Inlet between Stevenson Entrance to the south and Kennedy Entrance to the north, about 80 miles (129 km) north of Kodiak and 56 miles (90 km) southwest of Homer, Alaska. Lower Cook Inlet is a northeast-trending tidal embayment of the North Pacific Ocean located in Southcentral Alaska between the Alaska Peninsula Aleutian Range to the west and the Chugach and Kenai Mountains to the east. The Kodiak Archipelago is a group of islands in the Gulf of Alaska with Kodiak Island being the largest and extending about 177 miles (285 km) between the Barren Islands to the north and Chirikof Island and the Semidi Islands to the south. The Alutiiq name for the Barren Islands is ‘Usuunaat’ referring to ‘a cold place’. In 1778, Captain James Cook named the islands for their barren appearance. The Barren Islands are made up of seven named islands including East Amatuli, West Amatuli, Ushagat, Nord, Sud, Carl, and Sugarloaf. The largest island is Ushagat. The islands are uninhabited and part of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge and have a combined land area of 10,387 acres (4,203 ha). The southern Alaska continental margin is comprised of a collage of accreted tectonically stratified terranes resulting from motion between the subducting oceanic Pacific Plate to the south and the North America Plate to the north. The Border Ranges Fault runs through the Barren Islands and juxtaposes the Peninsular terrane to the northwest, composed of a quartz diorite plutonic core and extrusive portions of an oceanic island arc of Jurassic age, against the Chugach terrane to the southeast, composed of highly deformed trench-fill, trench-slope, and ocean basin deposits largely of Cretaceous age. The Chugach terrane is one of the major structural features in Southcentral Alaska, and one of the thickest accretionary complexes in the world, that can be traced for about 1,400 miles (2200 km) in an arc pattern from Kodiak Island to Southeast Alaska. Five major Pleistocene glaciations have been documented for the region. The first three completely filled the Cook Inlet trough, and during the last two glaciations, ice coalesced across the southern part of the inlet only and impounded freshwater from the north in a large proglacial lake.

The first occupants of the Kodiak Archipelago arrived at least 7,500 years ago, colonizing an environment warmer and drier than today. Archaeologists believe these people came from southwestern Alaska and were well adapted to life along the coast. Like their descendants, they used barbed harpoons, chipped stone points, and ground slate lances to hunt sea mammals, delicate bone hooks to jig for cod, and large bone picks to dig for clams. Some early residents probably lived in skin-covered tents, although oval, single-roomed houses with piled sod walls were in use by about 7,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence of a large prehistorical village on the Barren Islands that consists of more than 10 house pits. The presence of this village site suggests that people inhabiting Lower Cook Inlet, the outer Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound would regularly make trips to Kodiak Is­land for trading and ceremonies. Oral histories relate that ten baidarkas would leave Nuchek in Prince William Sound, rendezvous with ten baidarkas from Cordova, then travel to Tatitlek, joining with ten more baidarkas from there, and then on to Che­nega where ten more baidarkas joined the con­tingent. After leaving Chenega they traveled to Port Graham in Kachemak Bay where another ten more baidarkas joined the flotilla. They then crossed to the Barren Islands and on to Kodiak. All told, this trip was said to take two weeks. In 1741, Vitus Bering’s voyage to Alaska stimulated the resurgence of Spanish explorations to solidify its centuries-long claim to the Pacific Northwest; however, the true impetus was Spain’s colonial rivalry with Great Britain and Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific in 1778. Spain responded by sending a total of seven expeditions to survey the Gulf of Alaska from Dixon Entrance to Unalaska. In total, they made four separate sightings of Prince William Sound, three of the Kenai Peninsula, and two of Kodiak Island. In 1779, the second expedition was sent to Alaska with two frigates, the Princesa captained by Ignacio de Arteaga y Bazán and the Favorita captained by Don Juan de la Bodega y Quadra. In August, they reached the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and anchored among what are now known as the Chugach Islands. They landed and took possession for Spain, and the next day Bodega documents seeing an extremely high mountain issuing a torrent of thick smoke (Iliamna Volcano), and a group of islands he named Islas de Langara for Juan de Langara, which are the present-day Barren Islands.

The northern Gulf of Alaska hosts some of the largest populations of marine birds in North America. Millions of pelagic seabirds, including fulmars, petrels, cormorants, kittiwakes, murres, and puffins, breed at major colonies on or near the Kenai and Alaska Peninsulas, and the Kodiak Archipelago. Millions of short-tailed and sooty shearwaters migrate through the area in summer. The largest breeding grounds of seabirds in Alaska are in the Barren Islands on East Amatuli Island and Nord Island. Foxes originally were absent from most Alaskan islands in the North Pacific and were first introduced in 1750 when Russians released arctic foxes on the western Aleutians. Russians released red and arctic foxes on other islands mainly in the early 1800s, and the first documented introduction of foxes in the Kodiak Archipelago was in the late 1800s. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury began leasing Alaskan islands for fox farming and in 1928, arctic foxes were introduced on Ushagat Island. By the 1930s, over 450 islands in Alaska had been stocked mainly with arctic foxes. Remote uninhabited islands were popular with fox trappers because seabirds could be used as a source of food. Aleuts had indicated that seabirds were disappearing on some islands with introduced foxes as early as 1811. In 1949, fox eradication programs began in the Aleutian Islands resulting in dramatic recoveries of bird populations. In 1987, the fox population on Ushagat Island was eradicated to restore the seabird colonies. On 24 March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went aground in Prince William Sound and spilled more than 260,000 barrels (37,000 metric tonnes) of Alaska North Slope crude oil. During the weeks that followed, currents and prevailing winds pushed oil out of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska, where it drifted to the southwest, eventually enveloping the Barren Islands. Approximately one million marine birds were in the affected region and unprecedented bird mortality followed the oil spill. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Barren Islands and Kodiak Archipelago here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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