Kamchatka’s First People worship this volcano as the place where Earth was made.
In a sense, they’re right.
Klyuchevskoy probably does tap into a global layer of primal material.
Multiscale 3D seismic tomography studies of Klyuchevskoy show an almost 20-mile-long vertical “pipe” underneath the volcano that reaches down to our planet’s crust-mantle boundary. (Kayzar et al.; Koulakov et al.)
That mantle is the ultimate source of all material in Earth’s rocky crust, from basalt seafloor to granitic continents to the frozen hot-spot lavas that underlie cities like Honolulu and Reykjavik.
Since no one can actually go down to check, of course, this “pipeline” finding at Klyuchevskoy is only a hypothesis.
Too, the geological situation down there must be more complicated than a simple pipe-like opening from mantle to vent, or else there would be a blowout and Earth’s surface would look very different (also, we’d probably all be dead).
Nevertheless, Kayzar et al. do describe Klyuchevskoy’s lava chemistry as “primitive,” that is, very much like the mantle material that we know is erupting at underwater spreading ridges that manufacture seafloor basalt in all of the world’s oceans.
Why would stuff like that be coming from Kluchevskoy, which sits on the Kamchatka Peninsula’s continental crust?
Let’s leave that question hanging for a moment and move on to another oddity here.
Its height of almost 16,000 feet makes Klyuchevskoy the highest active volcano in Eurasia. Add in that likely 20-mile-long “pipe” below, and you’ve got a truly remarkable volcanic system.
Oddly enough, though, there’s another giant standing alongside Kluychevskoy, just three miles away and only a few hundred feet shorter.
But this other stratovolcano’s heart is cold, and it is slowly, majestically disintegrating.
In fact, it is our friend Kamen, whose “death” amid mysterious circumstances we mentioned last time!
No, Kamen didn’t shut down and hand over the spigot, so to speak, to Klyuchevskoy.
Their lavas, while both rather mantle-like, have different geochemistry. (Churikova et al., 2012, 2013)
And Kamen appears to have “died” about 11,000 years ago, while Klyuchevskoy is only 6,000 to 7,000 years old (bad news for the First Peoples, that).
Even weirder, Bezymianny — the only volcano in this group to erupt a silicate-rich material called andesite (Kayzar et al.) — has lava characteristics so similar to Kamen’s that it’s possible Bezymianny has taken over at least part of Kamen’s old plumbing system. (Churikova et al., 2012, 2013; Thelen et al.)
Another sign of connection might be the ongoing seismicity between these two fire mountains. (Thelen et al.)
Adding to the mystery here is another nearby volcano, called Tolbachik, which apparently thinks it is in Hawaii.
Tolbachik is not in Hawaii.
All of this — two unrelated giants, standing almost side by side; a little volcano, more than half a mile shorter than the giants, with an explosive temper (Bezymianny); a Hawaiian-style fissure volcano (Tolbachik) — and much, much more, in a relatively tiny (30 x 50 mile) chunk of coastal Siberia!
Such a cluster of highly productive volcanoes, with different eruptive styles and lava chemistry, isn’t something geologists see very often anywhere in the world. (Koulakov et al.)
Nature is usually a little more orderly than that.
So what the heck is going on in Central Kamchatka?
Volcanologists wonder, too.
While they still have more questions than answers about the Klyuchevskoy volcano group, they’ve brought some intriguing information to light.
But first, let’s meet the current Big Heat — all 270 km3 of it. (Ponomareva et al., 2007)
Although nine time zones east of Moscow, this is a quintessentially Russian setting. Yes, researchers do lose equipment to bears and icy winter temperatures. For local residents, light to moderate ashfall is the main volcanic hazard, but Klyuchevskoy’s flows have gotten to within three miles of this town (Kliuchi) in the recent past.
56.056° N, 160.642° E, in Kamchatka Region, Russian Federation. Klyuchevskoy’s GVP Volcano Number is 300260.
Per the Global Volcanism Program:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 0
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 0
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 292
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 12,406
And overhead, local air traffic as well as the major international air routes between Asia and North America.
Orange, as of October 13.
7000 year old Klyuchevskaya Sopka volcano – the highest active in Eurasia – is back to erupting mode after a 2 months break. A powerful glow is seen over the entire length of the lava flow + tremor has sharply increased, said Yuri Demyanchuk, head of Klyuchevskoy volcano station pic.twitter.com/Q65zZjz92c
— The Siberian Times (@siberian_times) October 14, 2020
- Eruption styles: The Global Volcanism Program puts it this way (emphasis added):
Since its origin about 6000 years ago, the beautifully symmetrical, 4835-m-[15,597-foot]-high basaltic stratovolcano has produced frequent moderate-volume explosive and effusive [lava flow] eruptions without major periods of inactivity.
Ashfall, lava flows, and/or lahars (mudflows) from Klyuchevskoy’s eruptions occur at the summit and, especially since 1932, from flank vents.
- Biggest recorded eruption: The GVP lists three VEI 4 eruptions for Klyuchevskoy: 1829; 1931; and 1986- 1990, when the summit and several flank vents were active.
- Most recent eruption: Ongoing.
- Past history: See the GVP for details.
Kamen — Klyuchevskoy’s seeming twin — had a sector collapse several thousand years ago. This cut the volcano almost in two, giving geologists literally inside information on how Kamen, and probably also Klyuchevskoy, formed. (Churikova et al., 2012)
Kamen volcano, up close and personal. (Note Klyuchevskoy in the background in a few shots.)
At first Kamen had many explosive eruptions, building up a cone of thick pyroclastic deposits. Then came the “runny” lava flows, covering that cone with a thin veneer of basalt — in active volcanoes like Klyuchevskoy and Shiveluch, this phase continues today. (Churikova et al., 2012)
Why the switchover? This is one of the unanswered questions. (Turner et al.)
Will Klyuchevskoy one day collapse, as Kamen did? Yes, probably — it’s a fairly common event at active Kamchatkan volcanoes, per Ponomareva et al., 2006.
They speculate, that if and when Klyuchevskoy has a sector collapse, the debris likely will head southeast, not north toward Kliuchi.
The Klyuchevskoy Volcano Group
Holmes and Watson never made it to Kamchatka, but volcanologists there must use the same inductive reasoning Sherlock did to explain the mysterious underground processes that produced gigantic Klyuchevskoy and now keep it alight.
It’s cutting-edge research, too. After all, this is one of the world’s largest volcanic centers.
It also accounts for more than half of all the output from volcanoes in Kamchatka AND the Kuril Islands to the south. (Sorenko et al.)
But what layperson wants to know the dry geophysical, morphological, and geochemical details?
We do respect and honor the men and women who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives collecting this data.
But, like Conan Doyle’s readers, we’d all rather be thrilled and puzzled as a story unfolds. And at the end, of course, there must be a surprising but satisfying solution.
Well, when it comes to the Klyuchevskoy group, there certainly are thrills and wonders to share, although mysteries here still outnumber solutions.
So I’m going to do a Watson here and hope for the best.
Let’s set the stage:
The questions ask themselves:
- Why are those huge volcanoes in the top picture clustered together?
- What’s a Plosky?
- Why are they all sitting in a valley? (Wait. Kamchatka has mountain ranges as well as volcanoes?)
Bonus points if you also noticed that curvy light gray area in the lower right corner of the bottom image, under the N,” and wondered what it was.
That’s the Pacific Ocean. The Moriarty of this story lurks a little way offshore, far beneath its waves.
Some of the best minds on this planet are busy trying to work out detailed answers to those questions.
Here is what this layperson has learned from reading a few of their published results:
- What’s the volcano cluster in the top image?
Those are the fire mountains we have already met, as seen from the south.
Spread across a horizontal distance of about six miles are smouldering Bezymianny in the foreground, then “dead” Kamen, and to the north, Klyuchevskoy.
On the second image, you can see Tolbachik holding its crazy luaus a few miles to the southwest of the Terrible Trio. Its runny red lavas form the plain south of Tolbachik’s vents.
As well, there are other volcanoes in the Klyuchevskoy group, south of that dotted line that marks the Kamchatka River — many more than this satellite image can show — but those aren’t active.
That’s Russian for “flat,” and it’s used in several names.
The full moniker for that flattish massif behind our Trio is Plosky Sopkie (or Sopka, depending on the writer).
It’s actually a two-for-one deal: flat-topped Ushkovsky and the stratovolcano Krestovsky, described by Koulakov et al. as dormant.
Ushkovsky’s last eruption was in 1890, but it still has fire in its belly, as shown by seismicity and active fumaroles on one of its cinder cones.
Here’s another interesting point.
You can’t really see it in those images, but Plosky Sopkie contains more igneous rock than all the rest of the group put together, including the two giants.
Huge volumes of lava have come out of the ground here.
And then we have to factor in what’s underground.
Plosky Sopkie sits right over the center of an underground basalt lava plateau that dwarfs anything we see now in Central Kamchatka.
This Pleistocene volcanic field, buried by today’s edifices, was active from around 260,000 to 60,000-70,000 years ago. ( Churikova, 2013, Figure 3)
Add it all up, and that’s a lot of lava.
Where did it all come from?
Next question, Watson.
- Why does the Klyuchevskoy group of volcanoes sit in a valley?
Because it’s a rift valley.
Those mountain ranges on either side are actually volcanic belts. Kamchatka has two or three of these, depending on your source.
Following Ponomareva et al, 2007, they are:
- The Eastern Volcanic Belt (which, by the way, includes Decade Volcano Avachinsky-Koryaksky).
- The CKD (Central Kamchatka Depression) Volcanoes, including Klyuchevskoy’s group south of the river and a slightly different set of “stone torches,” like Shiveluch, to the north.
- The Sredinny Range to the west. Experts disagree on whether this belt can still produce eruptions, since it apparently has been very quiet during recorded history.
Plate tectonics is at work here.
Though it’s operating in a very different situation, compared to the famous East African rift valley, the overall effect is the same — a plume of molten rock rises and the overlying land stretches out and drops.
As you may have heard, geologically Africa is splitting apart.
Someday, the pride lands and our own ancestral home will be a mid-ocean spreading center.
Kamchatka, on the other hand, is in a collision zone where the northwest Pacific plate and the continental plate meet.
The Pacific seafloor is heavier than the continent, so it takes a dive under the land’s leading edge, rumbling slowly down into the mantle, where it melts.
Underground, this process results in lots of molten rock as well as water and dissolved gases squeezed out of the seafloor slab.
At the surface, barring any complications, we see a deep ocean trench; a line of volcanoes several miles in from the trench — either on land or as an island arc, depending on circumstances; and behind the volcanoes, the land or seafloor is spreading apart.
Why is it spreading apart?
Here is the reason visually as a short computer model (never mind the jargon):
See the plate on the right start subducting? And that reddish material coming off it in the middle frame? And the land above stretching out above the molten rock in the third frame? That’s called back-arc rifting. Experts still debate the details, but there is consensus on the general effect.
Now, if this were a drawing room and the fictional detective was summing up, Dr. Watson might break in to say, “That’s all well and good, Holmes, but it’s true of all such places. Yet you’ve just gone into a lot of detail about how unusual these Russian volcanoes are! And what about that 20-mile-long pipe we heard about?”
Unfazed, Sherlock Holmes might respond this way.
“Such processes do happen at Kamchatka, as at all subduction zones. Therefore something else must be causing these unusual features.
“Let us look at the map.
“There is our Kamchatka Peninsula in the lower left, complete with subduction trench offshore.
“That green area in the center of Kamchatka is our central rift valley, and I believe that brown area under the “nin” in “Peninsula” to be the CKD volcanoes.
“Now look here, Watson. This curving line across the map is Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.”
“Why, they have a subduction trench, too!”
“Very observant. That dark blue line, in either case, is clearly a trench. Therefore, the Pacific plate must be subducting in two directions here.”
“Good Lord, Holmes! Can it do that?”
“Well, it is doing that, Watson, though the geometry must be complex, especially with that line of seamounts coming in at an angle.”
“Well, that tears it. I don’t know what to make of things anymore.”
“A tear! Watson, you’re a genius! If there is a tear in the Pacific plate at that Kamchatka-Aleutian corner, whatever the cause, then all is explained.”
“Of course. Theoretically, such a tear could allow underlying mantle material to flow around the edge of the subducting Pacific plate, which is below the Central Kamchatka rift valley and its volcanoes.
“This extremely hot material will produce more melt than is ordinarily seen at subduction zones. Hence the great pile of lava, past and present, at Klyuchevskoy and other volcanoes in the valley.”
“And the 20-mile-long pipe, Holmes?”
“Ah, more work must be done to completely understand that. But according to my friends Koulakov et al., we should be grateful that it exists.”
“They also have studied the Toba supervolcano down in Indonesia and find similarities between it and the geological situation in Kamchatka.
“In both cases, there are large quantities of magma, underneath the volcano at the boundary between Earth’s crust and its mantle.
“At Toba, this molten material has repeatedly reached the surface the only way it could: through some of the largest volcanic eruptions ever to occur on this planet.”
“But that hasn’t happened at Kamchatka, Holmes.”
“No, indeed. Nor are there any signs of any impending catastrophe.
“Koulakov’s team suggests that this is because the volcano Klyuchevskoy taps into that great body of molten rock — cubic miles of the stuff, Watson! — rather like a relief valve.”
“I see. That’s reassuring.”
“Well, Watson, I don’t know how many volcanologists subscribe to this view. It is a highly cited report by well-known experts, however.
“And if this hypothesis is ever verified, then humanity can recognize and honor the volcano Klyuchevskoy as not only a spiritual center of primary importance to the local First People, but also as a global guardian of our modern way of life.”
Special thanks to the author who introduced me, at a young and impressionable ago, to the importance of objective observation and critical thinking while taking me on so many pleasant adventures, from a boat trip up the Amazon to rail journeys across Victorian England in search of clews.
Update, March 9, 2021: Since this post last fall, Klyuchevskoy’s activity has waxed and waned, per usual, but in the last month or so, it has also begun erupting near its base, forming a small cone. Here are some videos from the Facebook Kamchatka group.
This new eruption started after a brief pause that began after the volcano had a big explosion and pyroclastic flow on January 24th (unusual, I think, in a basaltic eruption):
Edited March 9, 2021.
Featured image: Vita Fortuna/Shutterstock
Some of these sites are in Russian and were translated by the browser.
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