Landslide Buries Valley of the Geysers

Landslide Buries Valley of the Geysers

Geysers are a rare natural phenomena found only in a few places, such as New Zealand, Iceland, the United States (Yellowstone National Park), and on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. On June 3, 2007, one of these rare geyser fields was severely damaged when a landslide rolled through Russia’s Valley of the Geysers. The landslide—a mix of mud, melting snow, trees, and boulders—tore a scar on the land and buried a number of geysers, thermal pools, and waterfalls in the valley. It also blocked the Geyser River, causing a new thermal lake to pool upstream.

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this infrared-enhanced image on June 11, 2007, a week after the slide. The image shows the valley, the landslide, and the new thermal lake. Even in mid-June, just days from the start of summer, the landscape is generally covered in snow, though the geologically heated valley is relatively snow free. The tree-covered hills are red (the color of vegetation in this false-color treatment), providing a strong contrast to the aquamarine water and the gray-brown slide. According to the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA) [English language], the slide left a path roughly a kilometer and a half (one mile) long and 200 meters (600 feet) wide.

Within hours of the landslide, the water in the new lake inundated a number of additional geysers. The geysers directly buried under the landslide now lie under as much as 60 meters (180 feet) of material, according to RIA reports. It is unlikely that the geysers will be able to force a new opening through this thick layer, adds RIA. Among those directly buried is Pervenets (Firstborn), the first geyser found in the valley, in 1941. Other geysers, such as the Bolshoi (Greater) and Maly (Lesser) Geysers, were silenced when buried by water building up behind the new natural dam. According to Vladimir and Andrei Leonov of the Russian Federation Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, the new lake appears to be stable and draining gradually through the earthen dam, alleviating fears of a catastrophic flood. Should the new lake drain enough, many of the inundated geysers may restart. Initial reports from the Volcanology and Seismology Institute state this has already happened for some geysers. Geysers outside of the slide region, including the Velikan (Giant) Geyser and a major section of the geyser field known as Vitrazh (Stained Glass) appear to have escaped damage.

In addition to destroying a number of geysers, the landslide may have damaged habitats in the Valley of the Geysers. The thermal waters and heated steam jets made this valley warmer than the surrounding landscape, and the warmth supported a unique ecosystem. The loss of a large part of its heat source may alter the ecosystem, but it is not clear what additional longer-term changes might occur. For example, salmon that spawn in the Geyser River will be confined to the lower reaches of the river, and bears, which depended on salmon, will need to shift feeding grounds correspondingly.

Thanks to Sergey Chernomorets and Boris Yurchak for information and translation.

You can download a 15-meter-resolution KMZ file of Valley of the Geysers for use with Google Earth.

NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

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