When Lava Hits Ice in Russia’s Far East

The Kamchatka Peninsula in Far East Russia is an isolated region known for its glacier-volcano interactions that can lead to powerful natural disasters— and also, visually stunning images when lava impacts ice. One of these volcanoes, Sheveluch, has been erupting in recent weeks, creating local hazards. The volcano’s ash cloud, for one, threatens to disrupt air traffic in the region.

In total, Kamchatka is home to 160 volcanoes, 29 of which are currently active. These volcanoes— six of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites— are tall and far enough north to harbor glaciers. As such, they are associated with lahars, devastating mudslides down the slopes of a volcano triggered by an eruption and melting glaciers. These mudslides move quickly, destroying most of the structures in their path.

Avachinsky is one active volcano in the region that is covered in glaciers, placing the surrounding region at a greater risk for lahars. Avachinsky is classified as a stratovolcano, which is a volcano that has been built up by alternate layers of lava and ash. It is the volcano closest to the state capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. 

False color image of Klyuchevskaya with lava in red, snow in cyan, and vegetation in green (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).

“The Avachinsky volcano is glacierized, and the melting of ice poses a serious lahar threat the next time the volcano is active,” Ben Edwards, a volcanologist and professor at Dickinson College, warns. Edwards explained to GlacierHub that there are many deposits mapped out that are indicative of past lahars.

Previous lahars in the Kamchatka Peninsula have been devastating with high human death tolls. The Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, for example, erupted in 1985, producing a lahar that killed 23,000 people.

“They are incredible forces of nature and also brutally destructive and deadly,” said Janine Krippner, a PhD candidate in volcanology and remote sensing at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview with GlacierHub.

The Klyuchevskaya Sopka stratovolcano is the highest mountain on the peninsula and the highest active volcano in Eurasia. In November 2016 and more recently in January, the volcano spewed ash six kilometers above sea level. Such an ash cloud can disrupt international travel. Klyuchevskaya has produced notable lahars in the past including one particularly damaging one in 1993, according to Edwards.

The position of a glacier on a volcano can influence the risk of a lahar.  However, there is still much research needed on past lahars at Klyuchevskaya to better understand risk, notes Edwards.

A bear catching and eating salmon (Source: Creative Commons).

“Many volcanoes have glaciers up high, but those close to Klyuchevskaya are on the western lower flank,” explained Edwards. “There have probably been some interactions and definitely lahars generated from historic flows. But these eruptions have not been well documented.” Higher regions, which tend to be cooler and moister, are more likely to form glaciers.

Sheveluch Peak is a very active volcano, and the largest on the peninsula at 1,300 cubic kilometers in volume. Many glacier-volcano interactions have occurred at the location, releasing great quantities of steam and creating fantastic imagery for photographers.

Similar volcano-snow interactions also take place elsewhere on the peninsula, especially during the winter, according to Edwards. “We saw spectacular examples during the 2012-13 Tolbachik eruption,” he said.

2012-13 Tolbachik eruption showing steam rising from places where lava is flowing over snow (source: Ben Edwards).

The World Heritage website, which features several of the Kamchatka Peninsula volcanoes, makes special note of the “dynamic landscape of great beauty” created by the interplay of active volcanoes and glacier forms. In addition, the peninsula has a wide diversity of species including brown bears, sea otters and the world’s largest variety of salmon fish. It is also known for a wide variety of birds from falcons to eagles that are attracted to the spawning salmon populations.

“Volcanism probably also interacted with regional ice caps during the Pleistocene,” Edwards explained. “But very little work has been done on this in Kamchatka so far. There is room for this type of work in the future.”

Volcanoes can help glaciers in one way: the ash and soot they emit reflects sunlight away from Earth, helping to cool the warming climate. However, volcanoes currently pose significant risk from lahars to destructive lava and ash. Scientists must continue to observe volcanoes to help reduce these hazards and improve early warning systems.

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