June 04, 2007

Kamchatka Disaster

Kamchatka Disaster

June 4, 2007

One less wonder of the world: Kamchatka, Russia

A massive slide of boulders, gravel, snow and ice choked the Geyser River which runs through the world-famous Valley of the Geysers in Kamchatka’s Kronotsky Nature Preserve. Within hours, most of the valley’s geysers were submerged under waters that steadily rose behind the blockage.

The Valley of the Geysers, part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of only four places on Earth where geysers punch holes through the earth’s crust, spewing boiling water and steam skyward. The three other sites are in Yellowstone National Park, Iceland and New Zealand. The Valley of the Geysers is nestled in a canyon of a mountain river, where more than 20 large geysers and 200 thermal springs, vapor-steam jets, and mud-pots belch, boil and gush in an area of only about seven square kilometers.

But now all of that is no more and most of the large geysers have jetted their waters skyward for the last time. Unless the natural dam is somehow breached, observers say that likely that a large thermal lake will form in lieu of the valley. Photographers and rangers at the site felt the earth shake as an entire side of a snow-covered mountain collapsed, dumping millions of cubic meters of debris into the narrow valley for more than a kilometer downstream. At the time of the disaster, 19 tourists were exploring the valley after being flown in by helicopter for a three-hour excursion to one of Kamchatka’s literal tourist hotspots. It was a miracle no one was killed, eye-witnesses said, as the landslide came to a grinding halt within a meter of the helicopter and buildings where people were located. An earthquake the night before may have triggered the slide.

“This is tragic for humankind, in that we have lost one of the great natural wonders of the world,” says Laura Williams, director of the WWF-Russia Kamchatka-Bering Sea Program. “But for nature, this is only a blip in the history of the planet’s evolution. Here on Kamchatka, where earthquakes and eruptions are the norm, the earth is alive underfoot, constantly moving and changing. I think the nature preserve should embrace this as a chance for people to see the power of the natural world. It can be physically violent and destructive, but is also the root of transformation on our planet”

The Valley of the Geysers, prior to June 4, 2007
Photos by Igor Shpilenok
The Valley of the Geysers, prior to June 4, 2007
Photos by A. Filatkina

"The silt load from this mudslide has the potential to wipe out salmon and spawning areas in the entire watershed for years to come," says John Paczkowski, a bear biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society who has studied bears in the Valley for several years. “As bears are inextricably tied to salmon as a food source, the disaster will undoubtedly affect them as well."

The Valley of the Geysers was first discovered only in 1941 by Tatiana Ivanovna Ustinova, a geologist working for Kronotsky Nature Preserve. While she and her guide were exploring the valley, they were sprayed suddenly by a jet of hot water gushing from the earth. Thus was made one of the last great natural discoveries in the history of humankind. Now, 66 years later, Mother nature has taken back her treasure, leaving us in awe of her power to create and destroy.

Laura L. Williams is Director, WWF Russia - Kamchatka/Bering Sea Ecoregional Program, and a frequent contributor to Russian Life.

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