Russian photographer writes about a volcanic eruption at Tolbachik, seen by the Soviets as the most lunar place on the planet.
To witness it was like a dream, with phantasmagoric pictures of creation flashing before my eyes. Picture: Sergei Krasnoschekov
It was 2011 and I was part of a tour group. The volcano greeted us with dense fog, sometimes faltering in the drizzling rain and strong biting wind.
The whole scene reminded me of a mystical thriller. Grey scoria underfoot, visibility less than than 20 metres, and volcanic cones coming out of the fog.
The mighty volcano itself was not visible, but there was a strong feeling around of its powerful energy. It is said here that you can stay there for 10 days and not see Tolbachik at all. But I was lucky, and the next day, at dawn, the weather improved.
We got up early to meet coming day with this mighty giant. We saw a stunning picture. The southwestern slopes were entirely pitted with deep ravines of irregular shape. At the foot they go into many scoria cones formed at different times during eruptions.
ln the space between them for many miles down was filled with scoria and sand. And everywhere there are traces of old lava flows - so old that they begin to grow with moss and lichen. Nearby cones - a variety of colours, from grey to bright red, changing depending on the lighting.
Over many years, from the south, there formed a regional fissure zone, named Tolbachinsky dale.
At the moment only three eruptions are documented here: in 1941, the Big Tolbachik Fissure Eruption (BFTE) in 1975-1976; and the Tolbachik fissure eruption in 2012-2013. All the volcanic eruptions can be qualified as Hawaiian type. This means that the centre of the eruption is not in the crater of the volcano but in the side cracks.
In 1969-71, Tolbachik became one of the four selected sites in Kamchatka for testing the chassis of the first Soviet lunar rovers. There were claims that Tolbachik slag fields are 96% identical to the ground surface of the moon. Afterwards, the rover successfully worked on the moon.
Tolbachik was one of four selected sites in Kamchatka for testing the chassis of the first Soviet lunar rovers. Pictures: Sergei Krasnoschekov
Moving to the south, about 3 km from the cones of the North breach of eruption of 1975-76, we get to another amazing place called 'Dead wood'. Imagine that on a fairly extensive area are dried trunks of large trees surrounded by many cones. Once it was the border of the forest at the foot of Tolbachik . But the eruption pushed it many miles below.
Hot ash and slag filled the living forest layer to a depth of many metres. Trees dried up and stand as silent witnesses to the eruption.
Here you can fully understand the true scale of the local ecological disaster. On an area of about 500 km2, soil and vegetation were completely destroyed. And in an area of about 300 km2 there was significant damage to the structure of biocenosis (the richness and diversity of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms that inhabit relatively homogeneous living space).
This sombre landscape is completed with remnants of a Mi-4 helicopter. There is a story that it crashed and was buried in ashes. I found out that the helicopter had an accident and was forced to land not in this place, but 2 km from Lagernaya hill, and tourists brought fragments here and buried them.
Over 30 years passed, and gradually nature revives. The forest begins to recover. There already appeared poplar, pine elfin, rowan bushes and wild currant. Slag fields and old lava flows are slowly overgrown with grass.Full restoration of shrub-grass cover should be expected in about 75-100 years, mosses and lichens through the years 150 - 180; background taiga vegetation needs 250-300 years after an eruption.
A perfect cupcake... striking pictures of Tolbachik volkano, Kamchatka, by Sergei Krasnoschekov
Once again, the volcano attracted attention on 27 November 2012. My friend called me and said that the residents of Kozyrevsk, 70 km from the volcano, heard the buzz and periodic explosions from the side of Tolbachik. The houses were vibrating. There was no visibility due to inclement weather.
But there was no doubt that something happened on the volcano. Employees from seismic station KB GS RAS 'Kozyrevsk' also received similar information. The evening of 27 November, they attempted to enter the side of the volcano there watch the red glow and ash emissions. There were no doubts - this was an eruption.
I had to go and see it. I felt that I couldn't miss the chance since eruptions like this do not happen every year, nor even every decade. We organised a group and got a helicopter to fly us to the site.
The plan was to land in a safe place in the vicinity of the newly formed breakthrough. The weather was frosty and sunny, but the place was covered with clouds of ash eruptions. The crew commander made clear that the decision about landing will be made on the spot, depending on conditions.
'I've been walking on a cooling lava field. First stepping on it, you feel some anxiety, with any rustle and crackle you want to immediately get to a more predictable surface, you feel you can fall'. Pictures: Sergei Krasnoschekov
Even on approach before my eyes was the entire front of the lava flow, which by that time had blocked the road to the village and continued to hang around and press down tall trees far away from the foot of the volcano .
The magnitude and consequences of the eruption were enormous - as far as the human brain can understand and digest the information. We entered severe cloud limiting visibility, and for some time we couldn't see anything.
On our next turn, in the window flashed Ostry Tolbachik cone and the crew began circling above the breakthrough. It was virtually impossible to understand anything and bind it to the terrain. Visibility steadily lurched towards to zero. And suddenly, in a break of clouds and smoke, we saw a fountain of lava. I do not remember what happened next, it was as if I got 'switched off' from the rest of the world.
Everything was like a dream, with phantasmagoric picture of creation flashing before my eyes.
We made a few rounds, passed very close to one of the breakthroughs. It seemed that we could stretch out our hands and touch the lava.
We could not land because the weather below was unstable, cloudy with a very strong wind.
The magnitude and consequences of the eruption were enormous. Pictures: Sergei Krasnoschekov
My next opportunity to visit the eruption at the beginning of May. All winter I had followed developments on Tolbachik. In late April, I still found the opportunity to join a group of tourists, volcanologists from Moscow and a film crew. On May 3, we flew to the site of the eruption. However, before departing our ardor was a bit cooled when one of the crew said: 'Why are you going there? It's all over.'
And this was part of the truth. In late April there appeared a group of employees of IVS FEB RAS, who worked in the area all winter. Activity by the time of the eruption has decreased. Yet we flew. The weather was great, but the mood somewhat depressed because of the thought that it was too late.
We made a circle, choosing a landing site. Aerial recce clearly showed two working cones. Of course, there was no river of fire as in the winter, flowing over the surface, but it as too early to say the eruption was over. The volcano met us with sunshine, puffing every 3-5 seconds and releasing material to a height of 100 metres. There was almost no snow.
I did not manage to see lava river pours over the surface. But I was on a cooling lava field. First stepping on it, you feel some anxiety. With any rustle and crackle you want to immediately get to a more predictable surface, you feel you can fall. Over time, you got more confident and stop worrying.
The temperature inside the cavity was enough to singe hairs on the heads and and face of some of my fellow travellers. Pictures: Sergei Krasnoschekov
In early July, I had another chance to get there by car, on a new road. The flow of tourists was just huge, groups followed one another with surprising regularity. What changes have taken place since my visit in May? Activity of main cone was already much lower. It threw erupting material rarely, at intervals of 5-10 seconds.
A wind change meant ashes and gas emissions were drifting towards us but there was now a chanceto get closer to the outputs of the lava on the surface of the lava tubes. In September, the main cone stopped working as did the lava flow from the lava tubes. But the stone remained hot.
The temperature inside the cavity was enough to singe hairs on the heads and and face of some of my fellow travellers. Now it will get cooler for a very long time. I was told, that on the cones on the Northern breakout of 1975-76, snow began to linger only in the year 2000.
Everything comes to an end, and the active phase of the last eruption is over. It lasted nine months, and during that time it was possible to observe and study it in close proximity. All of us are incredibly lucky to have seen it with our own eyes.
Photographer Sergei Krasnoschekov, 47, lives and works in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Kamchatka region, in the Russian Far East. He travels around Russia, Africa and South East Asia. Sergei's favourites are wildlife, landscape and travel photography.
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