The Valley of the Geysers

The Valley of the Geysers. The more correct moniker for the Valley of the Geysers would be the «Valley of the Geyser River,» given to the area by geologist T. I. Ustinova. The valley is situated near the eastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, among the volcanic ranges of the Eastern Volcano Belt, 180 km northeast of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The complex history of the region has always aroused great interest among specialists. 

The Valley of the Geysers was discovered on July 25, 1941 by nature reserve scientist T. I. Ustinova and her assistant A.P. Krupenin. Three months prior, on April 14, 1941, the team had made the discovery of the Pervenets (Firstborn) Geyser in the nearby valley of the Shumnaya River.  

The eight-kilometer-long canyon of the Valley of the Geysers reaches four-kilometers wide in places, and up to 400 meters deep. The canyon was carved by the Geyser River. There are dozens such canyons in Kamchatka, but this one is unique due to its more than 40 geysers and many hot springs all within a six-kilometer stretch, and divided into nine zones. Ecological excursions currently take place within the central part of the Valley of the Geysers, in the so-called 5th, 6th, and 7th zones. One can find here all known forms of the geothermal activity, including permanent and intermittent boiling springs, hot lakes, geysers, mud volcanoes and caldrons, thermal platforms and steam jets all packed into a small space. 

A geyser is a boiling spring, periodically spewing a vaporous water mix. Each geyser has its own cycle and discharge characteristics. They differ from one another in the length of their channels and cycles, the ratio of their phases and stages, their regularity, intensity of discharge, vapor-water ratio, and the chemistry of the vapor-water phase. The thickness of geyser accretions and their morphology are also very different. 

The geological history of the region is of great interest for specialists. 

It is impossible to fully grasp, appreciate, or study the Valley of the Geysers without understanding the intricate and distinctive ecosystem that has evolved in the hydrothermal environment. Native communities of thermal bacteria, algae, lichens, mosses and vascular plants are unique to this area. The combination of normal and “interzonal” areas of vegetation with the phenomenon of thermal ecosystems significantly influences local fauna as well. In addition to creating a splendidly photogenic scene, the rare biological and ecological features of the Valley’s ecosystems have attracted the interest of biologists from a variety of fields.  

On June 3, 2007 at 2.20 p.m. a natural catastrophe occurred in the Valley of the Geysers when the side of a mountain collapsed into the upper reaches of Vodopadny (Waterfall) Creek. Large blocks of bedrock broke off and formed a massive landslide, accompanied by mudslide. 

The highly inundated mass of rocks created a torrent of water, snow, clods, boulders, and debris of varying size, which roared through the canyon at 35–40 km/h, sweeping trees and bushes from its path.  

The torrent reached the Geyser River and rushed down its valley to the mouth of the river. At the place where Vodopadny Creek once flowed into the Geyser River a natural levee was formed, damning in the river and later forming a lake. 

In the second phase, at the same time as the mudslide, within 2.5 minutes the rim of the valley continued to collapse into the upper reaches of Vodopadny Creek. The remainder of the second phase of the landslide, mostly dry at this point and moving rapidly over the surface of the first landslide, shot straight down and stopped only one meter from the helicopter platform and the ranger station at an altitude of 500 m. 

As result of these events, in the upper reaches of the Vodopadny Creek, an amphitheater-shaped formation was created, facing the northwest and revealing a wall of rock 150 m high and 800 m long. The two phases of the landslide buried more than 1.7 km of the Valley over a width of 200 to 400 m. 

After the landslide and formation of the dam on the Geyser River, water collected for four days. When the water level in dammed lake breached the upper level of the dam, it because to erode away at the dam. Almost at once, the river washed away 8–10 meters of the dam. In the next four hours, the water level in the dammed lake decreased by nine meters. The eroded material was washed downstream along the Shumnaya River. The deepest point of the newly formed lake is now 20 m.  

In terms of size, this landslide was gigantic: its volume was about 20 million cubic meters. It was definitely the largest landslide every observed in the history of Kamchatka, and one of the largest every documented in Russian historical times. 

Some of the most spectacular places in the Valley of the Geysers were covered by the landslide’s debris: waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers. It was very fortunate that no people died during the catastrophe. The buildings in the Valley also remained undamaged. 

 As a result of the landslide:  

• Seven geysers were buried: 
Pervenets (Firstborn, however the water is washing away the soil layers more and more, leaving hope for the geyser’s rebirth); 
Troinoy (Triple); 
Sakharny (Sugar); 
Nedostupny (Inaccessible); 
Sosed (Neighbor); 
Shilo (Awl); 
Malyutka (Baby); 

 • The basalt Vorota (Gates) to the Valley were destroyed;  

• The geyser housing of the Malakhitovy Grot (Malachite Grotto) Hot Spring was severely damaged; 

 • The following geysers were flooded:
Skalisty (Rocky); 
Bolshaya Pechka (Greater Stove); 
Tekuchy (Running); 
Konus (Cone); 
Buratino (Pinocchio); 
Maly (Lesser); 
Malaya Pechka (Lesser Stove); 
Bolshoy (Great, however, during low water levels in the lake, the geyser begins to function as before); 
Boroda (Beards); 

 • The following springs now function as geysers:  
Vanna (Bath); 
Novy Fontan (New Fountain); 

 • The new Mladenets (Newborn) Geyser appeared; 

• The new Geyser Lake was formed with turquoise water and stable water temperature. Now it is actively inhabited by algae and aquatic invertebrates; 

• The river channel has been altered. 

New themes for ecological excursions have now appeared: visitors learn about the reasons, the process, and the results of the natural landslide, and about issues relating to people and wildlife in the reserve. 

In the first days after the disaster, some hysterical and overenthusiastic people called for the immediate clearing of the debris from the Geyser River channel, even demanding the use of heavy machinery and powerful explosions. Indeed, hasty declarations to this end were made to the media. Finally, after careful consideration of experts, this wave of detrimental intentions subsided. It would be absurd to interfere with the dynamics of the natural processes, especially on the territory of the reserve. 

The collapse of the banks of the Valley of the Geysers and the ensuing landslide are normal and naturally-determined processes in these landscapes. Thermal systems are always short-lived. Similar scenarios have been traced back in time by geologists on many occasions, some even more intense that then events of July 3, 2007. Even the spectacular natural feature of the Valley known as Vitrazh (Stained-Glass Window) is the result of a previous landslide. 

The loose volcano tufa and clay that made up the landslide in 2007 are now being rapidly worn away by sunlight, water, and wind. Collapsed masses of earth are now being taken over by plants, water is emerging to the surface and forming small lakes, seeking to form one channel for the New Vodopadny Creek. There are new strongholds and fronts of pioneer vegetation, birds have boldly begun to nest on clay boulders, and bears are making new trails.  

Thus, the new face of the Valley of the Geysers is a unique area for establishing monitoring and research programs on a range of fascinating topics.