The 1585 Aleutian Islands Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

Imagine yourself standing on the rugged, windswept shores of the Aleutian Islands, the northern Pacific Ocean stretching out before you in a seemingly endless expanse of blue. The year is 1585, and you are a member of the Unangan people, living a life deeply intertwined with the rhythms of nature. The air is crisp, filled with the scent of saltwater and the distant calls of seabirds.

As you go about your daily activities, an unsettling tremor runs through the ground beneath your feet. At first, it's just a faint vibration, but it quickly grows stronger, shaking the earth with an intensity you've never felt before. The ground heaves and cracks, and you struggle to keep your balance as the world around you is thrown into chaos.

In the distance, you hear the roar of the ocean as a massive wave—a tsunami—races towards the shore. You and your community scramble to higher ground, watching in awe and terror as the wave crashes onto the coast, sweeping away everything in its path. The landscape is forever changed, and the memory of this day will be passed down through generations as a testament to the raw power of nature.

This is the backdrop for the 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake, a seismic event that would leave a lasting impact on both the land and its people. Join us as we delve into the history, geology, and cultural significance of this powerful earthquake, exploring how it shaped the lives of those who experienced it and what it can teach us about the dynamic forces that continue to shape our world today.

When you think of earthquakes, you might picture the dramatic footage of recent events like those in Japan or California. However, earthquakes have been a part of our planet's story for far longer than modern recording devices can capture. One such significant event is the 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake. While it might not be as well-known as more recent quakes, its impact on history and the understanding of tectonic activity is monumental. So, let's dive into the seismic waves of time and explore this fascinating natural event.

Setting the Scene: The Aleutian Islands

The Aleutian Islands, a chain of over 300 small volcanic islands, stretch across the northern Pacific Ocean, forming a rugged arc from Alaska to Russia. These islands are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a hotspot for volcanic activity and earthquakes due to the movement of tectonic plates. The Aleutian Islands are home to a harsh, yet strikingly beautiful environment, with diverse wildlife and unique geological features.

The Earthquake: A Brief Overview

The 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake is estimated to have had a magnitude of around 8.0-8.5 on the Richter scale. This powerful quake struck a remote and sparsely populated region, which means direct historical records are sparse. However, the geological evidence and oral histories passed down through generations of indigenous peoples provide crucial insights into the event.

Tectonic Background: Why Do the Aleutians Shake?

To understand the 1585 earthquake, we need to delve into the tectonic dynamics at play. The Aleutian Islands are located at the convergent boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. Here, the Pacific Plate is subducting beneath the North American Plate, creating a subduction zone known for producing powerful earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

In this region, the immense pressure and friction between the two plates build up over time. When this pressure is released, it results in seismic activity. The 1585 earthquake was one such release of energy, causing significant shifts in the earth's crust.

Impact on the Indigenous Peoples

The Aleutian Islands were inhabited by the Unangan people, also known as the Aleuts, long before Russian explorers arrived in the 18th century. The Unangan people have a rich cultural heritage, deeply connected to the land and sea. They lived in harmony with the natural rhythms of their environment, which included the occasional, yet powerful, earthquakes.

Oral traditions of the Unangan people recount the 1585 earthquake as a significant event. These stories describe ground shaking so intense that it altered the landscape, causing landslides and tsunamis. Coastal villages were particularly affected, with some being wiped out by the resulting waves. These accounts, while not written down at the time, have been passed through generations, preserving the memory of the quake.

Geological Evidence: What the Rocks Tell Us

Modern scientists study ancient earthquakes through various means, including geological surveys and sediment analysis. In the case of the 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake, researchers have found evidence in the form of tsunami deposits and changes in the landscape.

Tsunami deposits are layers of sediment that are carried and deposited by tsunami waves. By studying these layers, scientists can estimate the magnitude and impact of past tsunamis. In the Aleutian Islands, layers of marine sediments found inland suggest that a significant tsunami followed the 1585 earthquake, corroborating the oral histories of the Unangan people.

Additionally, changes in the landscape, such as uplifted coastal areas and altered river courses, provide clues about the quake's intensity and the tectonic shifts that occurred. These geological markers help piece together the story of the 1585 earthquake, despite the lack of written records from the time.

The Ripple Effect: Broader Implications

While the immediate impact of the 1585 earthquake was localized to the Aleutian Islands, its effects were felt far beyond. The earthquake likely triggered a series of aftershocks and volcanic activity in the region, contributing to the dynamic and volatile nature of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Furthermore, the study of this earthquake has broader implications for understanding seismic activity in subduction zones. By analyzing historical events like the 1585 quake, scientists can better predict future earthquakes and prepare for their potential impacts. This knowledge is crucial for regions around the world that are prone to similar tectonic activity.

Modern Reflections: Learning from the Past

In today's world, we have advanced technology to monitor and study earthquakes, but ancient events like the 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake remind us of the power and unpredictability of nature. These historical quakes provide valuable lessons in preparedness and resilience.

For the people living in earthquake-prone areas, understanding the history of seismic activity can inform building codes, emergency response plans, and public education efforts. By learning from the past, we can mitigate the impact of future earthquakes and protect communities from their devastating effects.

Conclusion: A Legacy of Resilience

The 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake is a testament to the enduring resilience of the Unangan people and the dynamic nature of our planet. While much of its story remains shrouded in the mists of time, the evidence we do have highlights the importance of understanding and respecting the forces that shape our world.

As we continue to study and learn from ancient earthquakes, we not only honor the memory of those who experienced them but also equip ourselves with the knowledge to face future challenges. The tale of the 1585 Aleutian Islands earthquake is a powerful reminder of our connection to the earth and the need to live in harmony with its ever-changing landscape.

So, next time you hear about an earthquake, remember that it's not just a current event—it's part of a long, ongoing story of our planet, one that stretches back centuries and will continue to unfold for generations to come.

So what can we do to get better prepared?


A kit is not a safety blanket you just purchase to make yourself feel better, it is an important investment in your household’s safety and preparedness. Not all emergency kits are created equal, and we highly recommend using the Province of BC and Government of Canada resources when building or buying a kit. We are also pleased to offer Earthquake Kits that developed to meet the government requirements for emergency preparedness. Visit our Gov BC Earthquake Kit product page to view the contents of our kits and feel free to use this as a guideline for assembling your own. What’s important to us is not that you buy a kit from us, but that every household have a kit at the ready in case something unexpected should occur.


The Province of BC and the Federal Government have made huge strides in this area in recent years implementing an Emergency Notifications network through mobile carriers and testing it to great success levels. This can provide seconds to even minutes of advanced notice prior to an earthquake being felt in any given location. However, a network of this complexity relies on strategically positioned censors along the coastline. We need to continue expanding this network of sensors and make sure that existing censors are being properly monitored and maintained.

We also need to expand from mobile phone notifications to physical alarms in homes, buildings, and especially schools/daycares.

For more details on how this Early Detection Grid works, please check out the following video by the CBC several years ago.


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