August 15, 2003: Above their heads, the afternoon sky is turning dark, even as fog drops like a curtain over the glacier-covered peaks of the mountains and fills the valley of the river flowing toward them. Olga Tutubalina and Sergey Chernomorets walk carefully along the left bank of the river through a mix of boulders, loose rocks, blocks of ice, and boot-sucking black mud that stretches for miles before disappearing into the fog and the folds of the mountains ahead. It’s their fourth trip to the Caucasus Mountains in the southern Russia republic of North Ossetia since October 2002. Today, they hope to finally see up close what so far they had only been able to see from a distance: the starting point of the largest glacial collapse ever recorded.
Running east to west across the narrow isthmus of land between the Caspian Sea to the east and the Black Sea to the west, the Caucasus Mountains make a physical barricade between southern Russia to the north and the countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south. In their center, a series of 5,000-meter-plus summits (16,000-plus feet) stretch between two extinct volcanic giants: Mt. Elbrus at the western limit and Mt. Kazbek at the eastern. Volcanism fuels hot springs that steam in the alpine air. On the lower slopes, snow disappears in July and returns again in October. On the summit, winter is permanent. Glaciers cover peaks and steep-walled basins called cirques. The remote, sparsely populated area is popular with tourists and backpackers.
On the evening of September 20, 2002, in a cirque just west of Mt. Kazbek, chunks of rock and hanging glacier on the north face of Mt. Dzhimarai-Khokh tumbled onto the Kolka glacier below. Kolka shattered, setting off a massive avalanche of ice, snow, and rocks that poured into the Genaldon River valley. Hurtling downriver nearly 8 miles, the avalanche exploded into the Karmadon Depression, a small bowl of land between two mountain ridges, and swallowed the village of Nizhniy Karmadon and several other settlements.
At the northern end of the depression, the churning mass of debris reached a choke point: the Gates of Karmadon, the narrow entrance to a steep-walled gorge. Gigantic blocks of ice and rock jammed into the narrow slot, and water and mud sluiced through. Trapped by the blockage, avalanche debris crashed like waves against the mountains and then finally cemented into a towering dam of dirty ice and rock. At least 125 people were lost beneath the ice.
Dmitry Petrakov, Sergey Chernomorets, and Olga Tutubalina have been returning to the site since the disaster. The three have been friends and colleagues for several years. Tutubalina and Petrakov are members of the Faculty of Geography at Moscow State University. She teaches and researches in the Laboratory of Aerospace Methods for the Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, and he is a researcher in the Department of Cryolithology and Glaciology. Chernomorets is the General Director of the University Centre for Engineering Geodynamics and Monitoring in Moscow.
The combination of backgrounds made the team uniquely qualified to study the Kolka disaster. In the year following the event, they made five trips to the Russian Republic of Ossetia in the central Caucasus. They wanted to figure out exactly what had happened that day and to forecast what might happen in coming weeks, months, and years at the site.