The Most Active Volcano You’ve Never Heard Of

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 1 2013 8:39 AM

The Most Active Volcano You’ve Never Heard Of

In the extreme northeast region of Russia is the Kamchatka Peninsula. Familiar to people who play the board game Risk, Kamchatka is a huge mass of land sticking out into the north Pacific, and sitting on the peninsula is a cluster of volcanoes, some of them among the most active on the planet.

The biggest of these is Klyuchevskaya Sopka, a monster stratovolcano towering over 4750 meters (15,500 feet) high. It’s also the most active, having been more-or-less erupting continuously since the late 1600s. It’s erupted a dozen times just since 2000!


On Oct. 20, 2013, the Landsat 8 Earth-observing satellite flew over Klyuchevskaya, capturing a tremendously long plume of ash as well as two separate lava flows moving down the volcano’s flanks:

Klyuchevskaya volcano
Icy heat, courtesy of a Russian volcano and an infrared-equipped satellite.

Photo by NASA / Earth Observatory / Robert Simmon, usingLandsatdata from the USGSEarth Explorer.

That picture is a combination of green light, near infrared (just outside what the human eye can detect) and shortwave infrared (at a wavelength of around two microns, well outside what our eyes see). The heat from the lava shows up as glowing red (obviously) while snow and ice look green. The plume is a white-gray, as are the clouds just to the north (above) the volcano mouth.

The narrower lava flow to the west (left) ends in a small plume of water vapor, where it hits the ice. I suspect that plume is nearly vertical; you can see its shadow just to the north.

This picture is just one small part of a much larger, stunning image from Landsat. Here’s the whole thing, shrunk down quite a bit to fit here:

Klyuchevskaya volcano
The wide view, showing the long plume of the eruption.

Photo by NASA / Earth Observatory / Robert Simmon, usingLandsatdata from the USGSEarth Explorer.

You really should check that out full size. The plume stretches east for dozens of kilometers, blown over the Pacific by winds. There's also a phenomenal image of it taken using visible light, too.

Klyuchevskaya is breath-takingly photogenic; I’ve written about space-based pictures of it many times before (see Related Posts, below, for more incredible shots of it). It’s the tallest active volcano in Eurasia — which doesn’t surprise me; I live near a lot of enormous mountains that are 4000 meters tall or higher, and Klyuchevskaya is taller than any of them. It’s magnificent.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

It’s funny: I keep wanting to call this volcano “remote”. That’s my western hemisphere bias showing, I think. Certainly, Kamchatka has some forbidding terrain and is far from major cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but over a quarter million people like there. Russia’s an amazing place, so huge, and I strongly suspect most Americans know very little about it. For example, you probably had never heard of the city of Chelyabinsk before Feb. 15, 2013, when a chunk of asteroid exploded over the area and shattered windows across the town. Yet Chelyabinsk has well over a million people in it!

Just as likely you’re never heard of Klyuchevskaya, either. Yet, clearly, it’s one of the most magnificent places on Earth.

What else haven’t we heard of? What other wonders await us if we just get a little bit more curious about this planet on which we live?

Related Posts

Satellite View of a Volcanic Pressure Valve
Volcano on Volcano Action
Sunrise Eruption (with a gallery of fantastic volcano pictures. You want to see this.)


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