NATURAL DISASTERS IN RUSSIA

NATURAL DISASTERS IN RUSSIA

Volcanic activity has occurred in the Kuril Islands and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Earthquakes have occurred on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island. Permafrost over much of Siberia is a major impediment to development. There are spring floods and summer and autumn forest fires throughout Siberia and parts of European Russia. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Tunguska Fireball

At 7:07am local time on June 30, 1908 in the remote forests and peat bogs on Tunguska in northern Siberia one of the world’s most astonishing and mystifying events took place. A blinding fireball visible for hundreds of miles exploded in the atmosphere seven kilometers above the Tunguska River with the force of ten Hiroshima atom bombs (10 to 15 megatons).

The explosion, centered at 101E longitude and 62 N latitude, was the largest event caused by an object from space in the history of civilization. The blast devastated an area of 3,900 square kilometers (1,500 square miles), flattening all the trees in that area. Fires caused by the blast, which lasted for weeks, wiped out all the vegetarian in a 1,000 square kilometer area. Shock waves circled the earth and trees were knocked down in parallel lines in a circle with a 20 kilometers (12 mile) radius around the center of the explosion, yet there was no crater. At the center of the devastated are was a mysterious island of trees, blackened and stripped of their branches but still standing upright.

The shock wave and deafening thundering sounds from the blast were experienced 1,000 kilometers away. In Kansk, 600 kilometers away, horses were thrown to the ground. People in the town of Kirensk, 350 kilometers away, saw a “standing pillar” of fire. Before the explosion a falling star flashed across western China. During the "white night" that followed strange luminous clouds surrounded the earth. People throughout Western Europe were able to read newspapers and take photographs at night. Scientist attributed the lights and luminous clouds to unusually bright northern lights.

The only people who saw the Tunguska Fireball it were some Tughus (Evenkh) reindeer herders. They described the object as a “bluish cylinder”“ followed by a multi-colored vapor trail. Nomads living 25 miles away were thrown from their tents. A farmer named S.B. Semyenov said his clothes nearly burnt onto his body.” It is not known how many people were killed if any. An estimated 4,500 reindeer were killed, including 1,500 that were incinerated to dust.

Explanations of the Tunguska Fireball

Most scientists think the Tunguska Fireball explosion was caused by an exploding meteor, or possibly a small asteroid or comet. But no impact carter or mineral evidence of such an event was found. The destruction didn't match the damage caused by a meteor. Some have suggested that the explosion was caused by a comet because comets are composed of water and frozen gases such as ammonia and would not leave behind much physical evidence after an explosion. An explosion could have been caused by such an object suddenly being heated as it entered the earth’s atmosphere but it seems if this these had occurred the comet would have been observed approaching the earth.

Because of the remote location of the Tunguska River, no investigation into the phenomena was launched until 20 years later. In 1927, a scientific expedition led by Russian meteorite specialist Leonid A. Kulik didn't find any meteorites or crater, which usually occurs after a meteorite fall. They did find some cosmic spherules and speculated they were caused by a stony meteorite that got sucked into a bog. The reason an investigation was launched so late was that Soviet scientists initially thought the event was caused by an earthquake and dismissed reports from nomads that it was caused by something coming from the sky as poppycock.

Farfetched explanations for the event include a wandering black hole, an alien spacecraft and collision between matter and anti-matter. The famous scientist Nikola Tesla thought it was because a death ray he built missed its target and thanked god no one was hurt and dismantled it. The local Evenkh people attributed the event local gods and shamanistic phenomena.

Scientist believe the blast was probably caused by the disintegration at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) of a 30-meter-in-diameter, 100,000-ton stone asteroid traveling at 2,500 kilometers mer hour (1,500 mph). The reason no crater or fragments were found is because it exploded so far above the earth. If the object had struck a few hours later it would have devastated cities in northern Europe rather than one of the remotest places on earth.

Volcanos in Russia

The is significant volcanic activity on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Kuril Islands. Kamchatka alone is home to some 29 historically active volcanoes, with dozens more in the Kuril Islands. Kliuchevskoi (elev. 4,835 m), which erupted in 2007 and 2010, is Kamchatka's most active volcano. Avachinsky and Koryaksky volcanoes, which pose a threat to the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, have been deemed Decade Volcanoes by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior, worthy of study due to their explosive history and close proximity to human populations. Other notable historically active volcanoes include Bezymianny, Chikurachki, Ebeko, Gorely, Grozny, Karymsky, Ketoi, Kronotsky, Ksudach, Medvezhia, Mutnovsky, Sarychev Peak, Shiveluch, Tiatia, Tolbachik, and Zheltovsky. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Describing the eruption of the Tolbachik volcano in 1895 a Russian volcanologist said, "It was awful, but very beautiful—huge clouds of ash, laced by lightning. Bombs were raining down, lumps of liquid lava. We ran around collecting them for study. That was a nice time—a lot of fun."∞

In 1981 a volcanic eruption on the Kuril Islands dropped thousands of tons of nutrient-rich ash into Kurilskoye Lake, a 50,000 year old caldera in southern Kamchatka. The year before scientist added algae to the lake to increase the survival rate of salmon hatchlings that feed on it. The algae ended up feeding on the ash nourishing numbers of hatchlings way beyond what anybody anticipated. By 1990 six million salmon returned to a lake that only had room for about 1.5 million. "It was a stinking mess," said one scientist. Thrashing salmon literally fought each other for space, ruining eggs in the process. By 1993, fortunately, things had returned to normal.∞

Supervolcanos erupted the Kurile Islands and Kamchatka in the last 2 million years.

Kamchatka Volcanos

Kamchatka is the only part of Russia located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. It boasts 300 conical volcanos, crater lakes and natural hot springs and has more volcanic earthquakes and eruptions than almost anywhere on earth. It is home to Asia's largest and most active volcano. The lava fields that surround many of the volcanos served as training areas for the Soviet Union's planned missions to the moon. Life is found in the boiling springs on Kamchatka Peninsula. The springs are not just hot. Some are as acidic as battery acid. Some are alkaline. Some have high concentrations of arsenic. [Sources: Bryan Hodgson, National Geographic, April 1994; Jeremy Schmidt, National Geographic, August 2001.

The volcanoes in Kamchatka are very active. An eruption on Karymasky Volcano in September 2004 sent a plume of ash four kilometers into the sky. It had been active since April 2004, producing as many as 400 minor eruptions a day. The eruptions were occurring at intervals of 1½ minutes and 15 minutes, sometime producing large volcanic “bombs.” No people were threatened by the eruptions but there were worries that ash plumes could disrupt air traffic in the area.

In March 2003, Sheveluch Volcano erupted producing large quantities of ash, some of which flowed down the slopes and threatened to disrupt road traffic on the Kamchatka peninsula for the first time since 1956. Also in 2003, Koryaksky Volcano erupted for the first tine since 1956. In February 2005, three volcanos—Sheveluch, Klyuchevskaya Sopka and Bezymyanny—roared to life at the same time. Ash from Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest volcano in Europe and Asia, rained ash on the town of Kluchi, 30 kilometers away.

The volcanoes in Kamchatka are unusual in that they emit CFCs such as chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and Freon 11 and 112. It was previously thought that these ozone-depleting gases resulted only from human action. The chemicals are created by reactions with vegetation, sediments and fossil fuels with chlorine and fluoride minerals . It is not known of the full of impact on the environment.

Kamchatka Main Volcanos

Mutnovsky Volcano—50 miles south of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Kamchatka’s main city— is one of the most active volcanoes on Kamchatka. It consists of a number of active craters on a single massif. Some volcano lovers and explorers have ventured on the volcano to explore its steaming and sulfur-encrusted fumeroles. To get really close to the action you need a gas mask. One visitor wrote in Time magazine that his group braved storms and cold weather to reach the summit. “The spectacle was worth the effort: a vast crater licked by glaciers, steaming vents encrusted with yellow sulfur crystals, sputtering mud holes and a turquoise acidic lake.” There were major eruptions in 1994. In March 2000, a steam eruption from one of the craters caused a 65-foot-in-diameter, highly-acidic green lake to form in a large glacier.

Klyuchevskaya Volcano (500 miles north of Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy) is Asia's largest and most active volcano. It is 15,584 feet high and less than 10,000 years old and still growing. It consistently produces eruptions and fire and ash and discourages 60 million tons of basalt a year. An eruption in 1994 was so large that flight traffic from North America to Asia was disrupted, Most climbers stay off of it, and climb its dormant neighbor, Kamen, instead. The Itelmen, a group of people indigenous to Kamchatka, believed that volcanos were occupied by gomuls ("ghosts") who caused eruption s when they became hungry and left the mountain in search of a whale to eat. The fire and smoke is caused by the massive bonfire used to cook the whale.

Bezymyannaya Volcano (near Klyuchevskaya Volcano), or No Name, was though to be dormant until 1955, when it began shaking and spew out steam. On Mach 30, 1956 it exploded with a force equaling Mt. St Helens. Trees were flattened for 15 miles and a huge cloud of ash spread first to Alaska and then around the globe. Like Mt. St. Helens the explosion began with giant avalanche that was followed by a blast out of the side of the mountain, leaving behind a giant horseshoe-crater. The volcano has erupted periodically since then.

Describing the action around the crater in 2001, Jeremy Schmidt wrote in National Geographic, "We hiked through soft ash, sinking knee-deep at times, climbed heaps of shattered rocks, and scrambled in and out of ragged gorges.Through wind and whipping clouds we climbed to the crater’s broken rim and looked over. The inner cliffs dropped hundreds of feet to a circular channel ringing a new mountain rising for the ruins of the old—a huge dome of smoking rock, its summit tower above us...On the floor of the channel sprawled a field of ice and snow-blackened by cinders and split by crevasses that gaped white in the enveloping mists. As we clung to the sharp edge, the dome hurled showers of rock from its steep sides. When large boulders hit the ice below, they left white wound in the dark surface,"

Earthquakes

Most of Russia is relatively earthquake free but earthquake do on Kamchatka peninsula and Sakhalin Island in the Far east and the Caucasus region in southwest Russia near Turkey and the Black Sea. One of the worst recorded earthquakes ever in term of number of dead was in Shemaka, Caucasia in November 1667. An estimated 80,000 people died.

Most powerful earthquakes since 1900 (magnitude on the Richter scale): 1) Chile on May 22, 1960 (9.5); 2) off Sumatra, Indonesia on December 26, 2004 (9.3); 3) Prince William Sound in Alaska on March 28, 1964 (9.2); 4) Andreanof Islands, Alaska on March 9, 1957 (9.1); 5) Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia on November 4, 1952 (9.0); 6) off the coast of Ecuador on January 31, 1906 (8.8); 7) Rat Islands, Alaska on February 4 1965 (8.7); 7) off Nias Island, Indonesia on March 28, 2005 (8.7); 9) Tibet on August 15, 1950 (8.6); 10) Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia on February 3, 1923 (8.5); 10) Banda Sea, Indonesia on February 1st 1918 (8.5); 10) off Etorofu Island, northern territories, Japan (8.5.) [Source: U.S. Geological Survey]

On December 7, 1988 an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale occurred in northwest Armenia when it was still part of the Soviet Union. More than 25,000 people were killed and 18,000 were injured. Most of the deaths were attributed to poor construction. An earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale hit the Altai region of Siberia. Nobody was hurt because virtually nobody lived there,

In 1978, Russians predicted an earthquake in the Pamirs only a few hours before it occurred. The coastline along the Kamchatka Peninsula is considered vulnerable to a catastrophic tsunami. An earthquake in Kuril Islands in Russia and Hokkaido in Japan 1994 caused $11.7 billion in damage.

Sakhalin Earthquake

On May 27, 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck an area around the town of Neftegorsk on Sakhalin Island. More than 1,841 people were killed. Five months before Russian scientist predicted there was an 80 percent chance that a serious earthquake could occur on Sakhalin or the Kuril Islands in the coming year.

A third of Neftegorsk's resident were killed. Most people were asleep when the earthquake hit. Most of the dead were crushed by slabs of concrete in collapsed apartment buildings built on sandy soil without proper supports. Survivors included men that left their apartment for a smoke and a woman who sought refuge under her overturned bathtub.

The rescue effort at Sakhalin was hampered by a lack of heavy equipment and lack medical help. No effort was made to rebuild Neftegorsk. The rubble was bulldozed over and survivors were moved. There were 15 ruptures along a 60 mile stretch of oil pipeline but no major leakages.

Floods in Russia

According to the Guinness Book of Records, 18,000 years ago an ice dam broke in the Altay Mountains, releasing water from a 75-mile long and 2,500-foot-deep lake. The wall of water from the flood was probably 1,600 feet high and traveled at a speed of 100mph.

During the spring thaw in 2001, huge floods along the Lena River created by huge blocks of ice that accumulated in dams, causing the river to back up and water levels to rise. The city of Yakutsk was particularly hard hit. Over 3,500 people had to be evacuated as houses and buildings were submerged in the suburbs and the city center. Dikes built along the river threatened to break. To prevent the same from happening again in 2002, new dikes were built and explosives were set of in places were ice accumulated.

In April 2004, ice jams on a river in the Kemerovo region produced devastating flood that killed at least 18 people and submerged more than 1,500 homes. Nine people were killed in the town of Abaz when an accumulation of ice flooded 450 houses. Russian aircrafts were called in to break up the ice jams with bombs.

In the early 2000s, flood that hit Russia’s Black Sea resort area left 55 dead. Most of the dead were people who drowned or were swept away by flood rivers produced by heavy rains.

Avalanches in Russia

In September 2002, a catastrophic avalanche in the Caucasus Mountains in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia caused by a collapsing glacier killed more than 140 people, including the famous Russian actor Sergeei Bodrov and film crew shooting a film called The Messenger. Several tourist bases, including Nizhny Karmadon, were buried. The large village of Knai just missed being hit. It was the third time in the past century that part of this particular glacier broke apart but it was the first time that large numbers of people were killed.

The disaster began when the Maili Glacier, heavy with record snowfalls form the previous winter, on the slope of 15,682-foot-high Mt. Dzihimara collapsed, sending 8 million tons of ice crashing into a valley below. The collapsed glacier picked up mud and rocks as it moved along and became a 20 million ton mass of mud, rock and ice by the time it came to rest. It is not clear why the glacier collapsed: perhaps it was because of a small earthquake, or maybe a chain reaction caused by a falling glacier further up the mountain; more likely it was the result of the additional weight caused by heavy rain that had fallen recently in the area.

The mass of ice and mud reached a height of 160 feet and roared through a gorge at a speed of more than 60 miles per hour. It traveled more than 11 miles before coming to a stop and traveled so fast that birds in the path were crushed before they had time to fly way. Along the route tree were toppled like matchsticks, boulders were scoured and the topography of the route itself was radically altered. Some blamed the magnitude of the disaster on global warming.

Most of the dead were buried under meters of ice and mud. More than 500 rescuers searched for the dead. They used dynamite to explode craters n the ice, cave out tunneds and used excavation equipment to search for bodies. A month later only two dozen bodies had been recovered. The rescue effort was hampered by the avalanche which covered the main road into the area.

Forest Fires in Russia

Even though the boreal forest may appear very green and damp, it receives relatively little rain and is susceptible to fires, Every year huge fores, caused by lighting and man, destroy as many trees as logging. Fores are essential to the regeneration of the forest. After a fire larch is the first to appear, followed by pine, spruce and fire.

The taiga forests in northern China are incredibly prone to forest fries and the they sometimes spread into Russia. Many are started by careless people, The effort to put them out are hampered by a shortage of firefighting equipment and helicopters. The Great Black Dragon fire in May 1987, burned for more than a month and devastated more than 46,000 square miles on the Russian side of the Amur and around 5,000 square miles on the Chinese side. China and the Soviet Union did not cooperate at all in fighting the fires.

A forest fire in 1998, damaged two million hectares, an area the size of Michigan, of forest in the Kharbarovks region of Russia's far east. Over 200 square miles of forest in a single night. The carbon dioxide released was equivalent of 4 percent of the carbon dioxide produced annually worldwide from man-made sources.

Major fires struck throughout Russia in the summer of 2002. Almost 25,000 individual fires were reported across 2.5 million acres of land. At one point 250,000 acres was on fire. In May, 2002 is a half dozen locations in Siberia and the Far East were engulfed in smoke from fire. In August 2002, Moscow was shrouded in haze and smoke from peat and forest fires fueled by unseasonably high temperatures and dry conditions. The visibility was less than 50 meters in some places. People with asthma were told to leave the area. Old people were told to stay indoors. Emergency officials said it was the worst smog in 30 years.

Smoldering peat fires are particularly worrisome. They produce a lot of smoke and are difficult to put out. Tons of water and sand can be poured on them in an attempt to smother them but they can continue to smolder underground for months, even years. The only thing that can put them out is continuous rain that lasts for a long time.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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