RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna interviews Yevgeny Rogozhin, Ph.D., deputy director of the Otto Schmidt Institute of Physics of the Earth at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Question: A devastating mudslide wiped the Geyser Valley off the face of the Earth on June 3. This unique spot in Kamchatka, on the Russian Pacific coast, one of the world's most beautiful places, was on the UNESCO World Heritage List. How does science explain the tragedy?
Answer: The valley had been one of the wonders of the world. It was remarkably beautiful. I have seen it. It is clear why the mudslide struck it. Gravitation was increasing on mountain slopes. Volcanic rock, very loose in some spots, surrounded it in steep walls. Rains and streams upset a fragment of a huge rock to cause a landslide that turned into a mudslide on its way down, and buried two thirds of the area. The Caucasus saw a similar calamity in 2002 as the Kolka Glacier crushed down on the Karmadon Gorge.
Q: Can we say the Geyser Valley was suicidal with its humid microclimate?
A: That's an apt metaphor, but no more than that. In fact, it was much more prosaic. It was natural development of processes typical of mountain slopes, which cause relief changes. The landslide dammed the Geyzernaya River to form a lake, which expands with every passing day. The river will eventually wash off the obstacle and regain its flow.
Q: Will geysers ever revive?
A: Major landslides often change the terrain beyond recognition. That was the case with the Geyser Valley. I don't think it will ever regain its previous look, but I expect the geysers will reappear sooner or later, and greenery will carpet the debris. That is what's happening in the Karmadon Gorge, which I visited a few days ago. Ice has almost completely melted, mud dried up, and grass is fighting its way through stone.
Q: Are slopes forming permanently or bit by bit, due to some reasons?
A: Slope formation is a permanent phenomenon, part of Earth crust evolution. As slopes grow steeper, their loose parts slide down. Moscow, for example, has many slopes potentially threatening landslides. It's crazy to build anything on them, but here we are - high-rises appear in these spots, and we are shocked to see them crack when quite new, as if geologists had never warned the builders.
Take the Vorobyev Hills - a huge dangerous slope we cannot make safe. Alluvial and tectonic developments are stronger than man. The Moscow University skyscraper is in no danger - it's far enough from the Moskva River bank. A clever expert persuaded Joseph Stalin that the edifice would not last on the riverside, as original blueprints had it. The weathering and lithogenetic processes, however, make the colossus slide several millimeters a year toward the river.
Q: Geysers have a volcanic origin. What is the pattern of their interaction with volcanoes?
A: Russia has few volcanoes, 99% of which are clustered in the Far East - the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Archipelago. Many are active. They spout fumes and ash, and occasionally erupt lava. The part of Kamchatka with the Geyser Valley is volcanically active. Here, such activity has taken the form of hot springs and steam eruptions. These grandiose natural phenomena stem from land-sea interaction. Heat permanently increases deep under the Earth crust with matter melting. The various types of crust clash between themselves to send heat up, and volcanic activity brews to form lava. Hence volcanic and thermal water eruptions.
Q: Some experts think it is possible to bring the Geyser Valley back to life. Do you think it's a grounded hope?
A: No, I'm afraid not. What bulldozer or excavator would cope with its stone and mud mass? The Geyser Valley is a nature reserve, so let it be the way Nature has left it. This was not an industrial accident, something like an oil spill from a tanker that must be urgently removed. I don't think it is worth it to clean and demolish the debris. Leave the Geyser Valley alone. It will be interesting to see what happens next. But if, let say, the new lake threatens flooding, scientists must think hard how to prevent it or channel it off. Mankind is arrogant, but what can we do against Nature with its incredible force?
Q: It is clear what has caused the drama. Is there anything still to study?
A: It is clear only to a certain extent. Details remain vague - was the water to blame, or the changing slope inclination, or something else? We must leave the explanation to geomorphology and volcanology. Many expeditions will visit Kamchatka this summer. We feel truly bereaved with the loss of the Geyser Valley. But then, this cloud has a silver lining - scientists were lucky to see a rare and grandiose calamity.