This week’s Photo Friday features two restless, glacier-covered volcanoes in Kamchatka, a peninsula lying on the Pacific coast of the Russian Far East.
The alert level for the Sheveluch and Ebeko volcanoes is currently code orange, meaning they are exhibiting “heightened unrest with increased likelihood of eruption” or a volcanic eruption is underway with “no or minor ash emission,” according to the Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT).
The volcanoes could potentially emit ash plumes, which would impact a nearby airport as well as low-altitude domestic aircraft and international flights. Over 700 planes, transporting thousands of passengers, fly in the vicinity of Kamchatka’s volcanoes each day, according to KVERT.
Eruptions of glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Sheveluch and Ebeko, can create lahars, or mudflows, which sometimes threaten nearby communities. Lahars occur when hot water and eruption debris mixes with glacial water.
On October 10 at 11:30 p.m., an explosion rocked the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeast Russia, where it is reported that Sheveluch, an active, glacier-covered volcano, has erupted. There are a number of glacier-covered volcanos in the region, but the Sheveluch is one of the largest volcanic structures in the Kamchatka. A plume of ashes rose to at least 8,000 meters and was reportedly spotted later 180 km to the north. Ash eruptions can negatively impact international flights, which routinely fly over the area. The Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team, KVERT, reports an activation color of orange, with the explosive-extrusive eruption of the volcano continuing and threats of “ash explosions up to 32,800-49,200 ft (10-15 km) a.s.l.” that could occur at any time.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.