The town of Adak, located on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, is in trouble. The former military town is facing an economic collapse. But its rescue could be thanks to the Netflix show Pirate Gold of Adak Island and its team of treasure hunters, including Eugene-based geographer and glaciologist expert M Jackson.
Jackson and other members of the treasure hunting team are looking for gold buried on the island in 1892 by pirate Gregory Dwargstaf. The eight-episode Netflix show feels more like a docuseries than the scripted nature of reality TV shows such as Pawn Stars. The quest for gold, though, becomes similar to a live action adaptation of the old computer game Minesweeper as the team’s search takes them on an old military base filled with buried bombs and munitions.
The binge-worthy TV show is a way for Jackson to continue her career in science communication.
“A lot of people think that science means you end up in a lab or a basement somewhere,” Jackson says. “For me, science puts you on a Netflix show trying to find something exciting.”
In 2017, Jackson graduated from the University of Oregon with a Ph.D. in geography, and she’s a three-time Fulbright fellow and a TED fellow. Her résumé includes writing The Secret Lives Of Glaciers and While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change as well as work for National Geographic.
While shooting Pirate Gold of Adak Island, Jackson and her team spent time in the town of Adak, which was built in response to Japanese invasion during World War II. The town’s population today is fewer than 100, she says, and its dilapidated state means that if a resident needs something — like a water heater — it’s easier to salvage from a nearby abandoned house than to buy something new.
Throughout the island, she says, there’s unexploded ordinances and razor wire. Add in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, and she says it’s a hard place to be. “Navigating those things was exceptionally difficult.”
The Alaskan wilderness captured on the show is a science lesson in the geologic forces behind the Aleutian Islands, which Jackson calls a “live place” because of the volcanic activity. “It defies how you think of landscapes,” she says.
Located in southwestern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands are still being formed by two colliding tectonic plates and volcanic activity. While shooting, Jackson says she could see a volcano was still steaming, indicating that it’s still active. The islands are a part of the larger Ring of Fire, a system of volcanoes that runs around the Pacific Ocean, so any activity on the Aleutian Islands could affect the whole world. “It’s where our Earth is new and it’s being made, but at the same time it’s incredibly old,” she says. “I find that exciting.”
While filming, Jackson says she used her science communication background to talk to the fabricators on the team. Having materials delivered to somewhere as isolated as Adak can take several weeks, she says, so treasure hunting before winter meant creating your own scientific equipment. And that required translating science into a more digestible manner for the team’s fabricators who were making needed machinery during shooting.
Pirate Gold of Adak Island has as its plot saving the town through treasure hunting (no spoilers here, so go stream the show to find out what happens). But the show also serves as a way to explain science to the general public, which scientists aren’t always great at, she says.
The business of science, she says, doesn’t always have communication at its forefront. Some scientists work on applying for grant money and then science, but there’s no reward for communicating with the public. “I really wish that system would change,” she says. “I wish a lot of people could meet a scientist.”
With Pirate Gold of Adak Island’s success with Netflix viewers, Jackson says she’s had people from around the world reach out to her on social media, asking her scientific questions about the island and wanting to learn more about it after watching the show.
“So many people are being introduced to a new place and so many are curious about it,” she says. “With knowing comes caring, and with caring comes hope. There’s a good chance that Adak might not be on the edge of decline that it is now.”
Pirate Gold of Adak Island is available on Netflix. For more information about M Jackson’s work, visit DrMJackson.com.