Aleutian Islands

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ALEUTIAN ISLANDS. Formerly called the Catherine Archipelago, the Aleutian Islands comprise some 150 mostly volcanic islands extending twelve thousand miles west of the Alaskan Peninsula; the four island groups are a continuation of the continental Aleutian mountain range. They separate the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean and are the boundary between the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates. When sea levels were low, as during the various ice ages, the islands provided a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, although the first migrants to America probably crossed the then-dry Bering Strait. The native people, Aleuts, numbered around sixteen thousand when encountered by the Russian-sponsored expedition of Alexey Chirikov and Vitus Bering in 1741. From 1799 the Russian-American Fur Company controlled the region and encouraged the proliferation of fur trapping. Aleut populations declined as a consequence of slavery, disease, and massacres (as with the Carib peoples of the Caribbean Islands). Further exploitation by Britain and the United States followed the exploratory voyages of James Cook, George Vancouver, Alexander Mackenzie, Robert Gray, and John Kendrick. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and by 1900 Unalaska had become a shipping port for gold from mainland Nome during Alaska's gold rush. It was not until 1893 that an arbitration court in Paris reconciled controversial hunting rights claims in the Bering Sea by declaring it open. Intensive seal hunting continued until 1911, when the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan agreed upon formal protection; the Japanese withdrew from the agreement in 1941.

The strategic value of these fog-bound, inhospitable islands for the United States lies in their proximity to Russia's Far East and Japan. Vulnerability to Japan was evident during World War II when it bombed the U.S. naval base at Dutch Harbor in 1942 and later occupied the undefended islands of Attu, Kiska, and Agattu. These actions were an unsuccessful ploy to deflect the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Japan's primary objective of capturing the Midway Islands in the mid-Pacific. Japan's reinforcement attempts in the Aleutians in 1943 were thwarted by U.S.

counterattacks from military bases on Adak and Amchitka. The recapture of Attu involved eighteen days of combat with many casualties; Kiska was regained after the Japanese had withdrawn 5,183 troops by surface ships.

After World War II a U.S. coastguard fleet was stationed at Unalaska Island to patrol the sealing grounds and, after 1956, to enforce a convention on seal protection agreed upon by the United States, Canada, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Amchitka, because of its remoteness, was used for underground nuclear tests in 1965, 1969, and 1971. The island is also part of the Distant Early Warning Network constructed between 1950 and 1961, and has sites associated with the Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar that was established between 1986 and 1993. In the early 2000s, the majority of the mostly treeless islands comprise the Aleutian National Wildlife Reserve; hunting and fishing remain the primary occupations of the approximately ten thousand Aleuts, although sheep and reindeer are also husbanded. The islands are home to re-search stations and military bases.


"Aleutian Islands." Available at

U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Environmental Management. "Amchitka Island." Available at

G. L.MacGarrigle

A. M.Mannion

See alsoAlaska ; Sealing ; World War II .

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Aleutian Islands (əlōō´shən), chain of rugged, volcanic islands curving c.1,200 mi (1,900 km) west from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and approaching Russia's Komandorski Islands. A partially submerged continuation of the Aleutian Range, they separate the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. The Aleutians comprise four main groups: Fox Islands, nearest to the mainland, including Unimak, Unalaska, Umnak, and Akutan; Andreanof Islands, including Amlia, Atka, Adak, Kanaga, and Tanaga; Rat Islands, including Amchitka and Kiska; and Near Islands, the smallest and westernmost group, including Agattu and Attu. The Semichi Islands, of which Shemya is the largest, are nearby.

The Aleutians have few good harbors, and numerous reefs make navigation treacherous. Among active volcanoes is Mt. Shishaldin, on Unimak. Relatively moderate temperatures lead to heavy rains and constant fog. Almost treeless, the islands have a luxuriant growth of grasses, bushes, and sedges. Most of the islands are within the Aleutian National Wildlife Reserve. Sheep and reindeer are raised. Hunting and fishing are the main occupations of the Aleut population. Research stations and military bases are located on the islands; Amchitka has been used for underground nuclear tests.

The Aleutians were visited in 1741 by Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer employed by Russia. The indigenous Aleuts were exploited by the Russian trappers and traders who, in search of sea otter, seal, and fox fur, established settlements on the islands in the late 18th and early 19th cent. The islands were included in the Alaska purchase in 1867; after the purchase, the U.S. government forbade seal trapping except by Aleuts. Fishing and fur hunting are now controlled by the federal government. Dutch Harbor, on Unalaska, became a transshipping point for the gold boomtown of Nome in 1900. The Aleutians were important during World War II; in 1940, a U.S. naval base was established at Dutch Harbor. In 1942 the Japanese bombed the base and later occupied Attu, Kiska, and Agattu islands; a U.S. counterattack from bases on Adak and Amchitka regained them in 1943.

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Aleutian Current(Subarctic Current) The oceanic current that flows westwards south of the Aleutian Islands and parallel to, but north of, the North Pacific Current. The water mass is a mixture of water from the Kuroshio and Oyashio Currents. See also Alaska Current.

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Aleutian current (Sub-arctic current) The oceanic current that flows westwards south of the Aleutian Islands and parallel to, but north of, the N. Pacific current. The water mass is a mixture of water from the Kuroshio and Oyashio currents. See also ALASKA CURRENT.

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Aleutian Islands Volcanic island chain, separating the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. They were purchased with Alaska by the USA in 1867. The islands have several US military bases and wildlife reserves. Industries: fishing and furs. Area: 17,666sq km (6821sq mi). Pop. (1996) 7951.