Shiveluch – the Bad Boy of Kamchatka

Shiveluch is seen from the air, looking north. The snow-covered main peak is Old Shiveluch, with the peak of Young Shiveluch just to the left. The light brown patch just below them is the centre of dome-growth activity. The large light-coloured area in the foreground shows the extent of the 1964 debris avalanche. (Alexander Belousov)

Every community has one. The ‘bad lad’ from the rough family on the wrong side of the tracks – never quite fits in with the crowd, always getting in trouble. Your folks warn you to keep away from people like that – too violent and unpredictable. As the years go by some grow out of it, but some get worse. A few mentions in the petty crime column of the local paper, and the next thing you know it says ‘Occupation: Gangster’ in their passport.

If there were ever such characters in the volcano world, then Shiveluch certainly fits the bill. Kamchatka is one of the world’s most geologically active regions, and it has more than its fair share of volcanic villains. However, for levels of violence and the extraordinary number of repeat offences, none can touch Shiveluch. And there’s no sign of the bad boy mellowing as it gets older.


Looking north, this photo was taken by an astronaut during the first long-duration occupation of the International Space Station in 2001. In the lower half of the photo is the Kliuchevskaya group (with a small ash plume from Bezymianny), while Shiveluch stands on its own at the top. The volcano between them, to the left, is the long-extinct Kharchinsky. (NASA)

Shiveluch (sometimes spelled Sheveluch) is often categorised as being part of the Kliuchevskaya group of volcanoes, and while there may be some good reasons for that, for this writer it just does not fit. Comprising (mostly) andesitic results of Pacific/Okhotsk plate subduction, the Kliuchevskaya volcanoes form a neat, self-contained group that is dominated by the terrifying beauty of Kliuchevskoy and the stark, silent form of Kamen. Nestling alongside is Bezymianny (Bezymianny – Not so anonymous, which seems hell-bent on catching up with its giant neighbours. Krestovsky, Uchovsky and the Tolbachik boys (Plosky and Ostry) are also part of the gang.

Meanwhile, Shiveluch stands aloof from this group, separated from Kliuchevskoy by around 80 km. Much of that distance is the forested wetland formed by the Kamchatka River as it drains the peninsula’s central valley, which lies between an older arc of volcanic activity and the currently active arc.

It’s ugly, too. Without doubt I am anthropomorphising volcanoes too much here (for which apologies, but it’s far too late to stop now), but Shiveluch is no ‘looker’ in the way Kliuchevskoy or Kronotsky are. Millenia of explosive eruptions, structural collapses and the belching of material across the surrounding land have left a jagged and complex topography of shattered mountain – a hideous, violent child that only a mother could love.


Shiveluch steams gently in 2001. All collapses of Young Shiveluch have occurred in the southern quadrant, constrained by the caldera walls of the Old Shiveluch collapse. (A. Sokorenko via KVERT website)

“His old man was no angel, either…”
What we know today as Shiveluch emerged in the late Pleistocene era some 65,000 years ago, making it much older than the currently active volcanoes of the Kliuchevskaya group. It was a fairly typical stratovolcano, building up layer upon layer into a gigantic edifice of more than 4,000 metres height.

Examination of the rocks from this time reveals a mix of typical andesite, which in some instances produced short viscous lava flows of no greater than 5 km length, and some basaltic andesite with lower silica levels that produced free-flowing lava runs that possibly emanated from sills within the structure and reached distances of up to 15 km from the summit. The most recent of these flows shows no evidence of glacial erosion, suggesting that it was produced at the beginning of the Holocene period, around 10,000 years ago. Still flanking the volcano to the southwest today is the Baidarny ridge, a lava flow dating to around this period.

The boss is dead …
Although it is difficult to ascertain much of Shiveluch’s history before that time, it is known that the giant mountain, as it then was, met a most spectacular fate. A catastrophic event blew away much of the southern side of the volcano, taking the summit with it. As a result a massive horseshoe-shaped caldera was formed of some 7 km width.

The collapsed material travelled up to 35 km and spewed out over an area of 350 km⌃2. Without knowing the shape of Shiveluch prior to the cataclysm it is impossible to define the true extent of the collapse. If the mountain had been a typical stratovolcanic cone then the collapse could have involved a mind-blowing 40 km⌃3 of material, although estimates based on the debris field suggest somewhere more in the region of 25-30 km⌃3. Either way it was an ‘event’ of gargantuan proportions.

In a paper published in 1974 the date of the collapse was established at 30,000 BP, but without any organic material available to conduct Carbon 14 testing this date was derived from indirect geological evidence. Studies in the 1990s of deposits from the huge debris avalanche revealed no evidence of glacial erosion, so it is now assumed that the huge event occurred around 10,000 years ago – just after the last period of glaciation in Kamchatka. Radiocarbon dating of the earliest available organic material that lies in layers above the avalanche debris shows that it is around 8,000-8,500 years old, lending credence to the 10,000 BP theory.

Either way, the boss was dead. Or maybe he just retired after a final, devastating effort – a few small andesitic cones (the Karan domes) on the uncollapsed western flank have been active since the big collapse, and occasionally show weak fumarolic behaviour to remind the world of this beast’s history.

Birth of a wrong ’un
A silent, jagged peak also remains, standing 3283 metres high. Today it is known as Stary (Old) Shiveluch. What is left of the shattered summit watches like an approving parent over a new monster, Molodoy (Young) Shiveluch. This evil child has certainly taken up the baton handed down by Dad, and in the process has become even more volatile. Nevertheless, it took Young Shiveluch around 4,000 years to produce anything of major note, but considering the sheer scale of Dad’s collapse that is perhaps not surprising.

From the floor of the caldera left by the 10,000 BP event arose a series of Peléan lava domes. Whereas Old Shiveluch’s magmas usually had silica contents of between 54.5 and 56.5 percent, those of the Young Shiveluch have, with two exceptions during periods of particularly high Kamchatkan volcanic activity, silica contents of between 59.5 and 62.5 percent. They are therefore more viscous, allowing more rapid dome growth, but in the process they build a weaker edifice. The ascent of highly viscous magma is also more violent than that of free-flowing basalt, in turn producing stronger earthquakes that rock the edifice to a much greater extent.

Between 10,000 BP and 1964 AD there have been numerous eruptions as the Young Shiveluch has grown, collapsed and grown again. Many of them were explosive events that not only built the edifice through extrusion, but resulted in significant tephra ejection.

However, through tephrochronology it has also been established that Shiveluch has experienced at least six major collapse events as well, prior to the most recent in 1964. These events occurred 5,700, 3,700, 2,600, 1,600, 1,000 and 600 years ago. Each of them involved the deposits of avalanche material across a wide area. The deposits, along with other volcanic layers, are graphically exposed in several places, most notably in the deep cuts formed in the Baidarnaya, Kabeku, Kamenskaya and Sukhoi Il’chinets river valleys that run off from Shiveluch’s lower slopes. Until work by Alexander Belousov and colleagues in the mid-1990s showed otherwise, these avalanche deposits were originally thought to have been from lahars, or glacial moraines.


Shiveluch’s explosive history is graphically revealed as rivers cut through the soft layers of deposits. Here burnt larch trees are preserved in deposits from a 350-year old pyroclastic flow. (Alexander Belousov)

In a number of places burnt larch trees have been found intact in the pyroclastic flow deposits. Although carbonised, the annual growth rings – and the all-important differences in growth rate – are still discernible and allow a more precise dating of more recent eruptions when plotted against the known ring patterns of other trees.

In an area where few people have ever lived there is not the wealth of records to back up the science. Written notes go back only to 1739, and it was not until 1854 that a major eruption at Shiveluch was reliably documented, at least in terms of when it happened. Some volcanologists suggest that this event (along with others) also involved a major dome collapse, although other researchers question these findings, suggesting instead that there was only a minor flank collapse, lahar or other landslide feature rather than a major debris avalanche.

In any case, the 1854 eruption was a big one, classified as a VEI5 and ejecting an estimated 2 km⌃3. It left a crater of around 1.5 km width in the larger caldera, although this crater had almost certainly formed during the previous major collapse event that dated to around 1430 AD (also referred to as the 600 BP event).

In terms of the amount of material ejected, the 600 BP collapse was the largest event since Old Shiveluch had catastrophically failed, and it may have figured in local folklore that was recorded by explorers in the mid-18th Century. The old story goes that it was ground squirrels burrowing in the foot of the volcano that caused it to run away to its present location, leaving behind two giant footprints in the form of lakes. These lakes lie at the outer reaches of the 600 BP avalanche field, and were formed by the event.

Following the 1854 eruption Shiveluch set about rebuilding again. Over the next 100 years a number of lava domes formed in the new crater. A large dome was formed between 1925 and 1930, and from 1946 to 1949 another dome, named Suelich, grew alongside. Together they almost filled the crater formed by the 1854 eruption. From around 1950 activity slowed down, and became fumarolic in nature only.

Maybe steam was all the ‘Bad Boy’ had left ……


213 thoughts on “Shiveluch – the Bad Boy of Kamchatka

  1. These reports of gases and smells have now been going one for days now some weeks and not one goverment organisation has even bothered as far as I know even visited this area to test the air.These are not islanders scaremongering theses are islanders who are worried and as you say scared of what they are smelling and feeling . The most sad part is a percentage of the islanders are also keeping their mouth shut and not reporting anything.

    • Authorities are to blame here. They were wrong to show up too late during Bob’s crisis and they didn’t inspire the necessary confidence, much needed in such cases.
      Now they can’t say much and people think they are trying to hide something worse. A natural response from who has been ‘cheated’ before.
      But who in this world could give the final world about any volcano?
      Etna, for example, is such a “predictable” volcano, and even Boris, who knows her like a member of his family, cannot be absolutely sure if there will be a next paroxysm or not.
      Remember, volcanoes like to take their time…

      • Heh… a large chunk of Louisianan swamp sinks out of sight and we, the public, know more about that than whats going on under El Hierro. Hell, I have even seen the radiological survey flight data and the lab analysis of the odd ball gases that are percolating up from the Bayou.

        Both events (Hierro and Corne) have their own phearmongers, but I’m pretty sure that the Louisiana residents are less worried about whats going on than people in El Hierro. Both have the possibility of the ground under their feet doing something rude.

        BTW.. a really weird onw for you… the percolating gas has a much higher Nitrogen content than any of the samples from the various gas or storage operators. And the radiological survey? A much higher level of radiation can be found in the fields and farmland nearby (from the fertilizer) than from the sinkhole. It doesn’t even register in the EPA survey grid overflights.

        • Dunno. But the bubble sites had 11.28 mol% and 12.714 mol% of Nitrogen on 5/22/12. The Acadian pipelines (Chico B and D) were around 0.55 mol% and 0.98 mol%. So that sort of rules them out.

          Crosstex has 0.3138 mol% of Nitrogen in their chamber.

          Another analysis comparing the isotropic nature of the bubble samples rules out the Chevron storage chambers.

          • Deep drilling in the Gulf?

            Deep aquifers??

            Looks to me like something has migrated down deep and cooked up a special brew the likes of which has not been seen before……………………

  2. Peter do you mean by EQ’S trending up wards that the depths will be even shallower than say 9Km deep . There have been 4 earthquakes this morning all 10km and under and the strongest a 1.7mb.

    • The submarine eruption off La Restinga materialised with only a few EQs above 10km. And there was activity in the north in late 2011.

      Not sure how much you can rely on Eyjafjallajokull as a model here.

  3. Looks like there is going to be an International Meeting on El Hierro just found this out but cant seem to see a date?.

  4. This night with the ex-tropical storm Kirk passed in south Iceland. The winds were very high, sustained 90 to 100km/h and gusts around 130km/h. This morning the whole street here is full of branches from the trees. At least one person died in the southeast, but it was a man hiking on the mountains (it is a very bad idea to hike in the mountains when there is a storm, even if you have lots of experience). A boat also received help in the sea due to the waves up to 14m high. Quite a storm.

    • I noticed how dark and windy it was this morning on the Mila cams. It still looks very windy. In Britain we have a warm front and it feels like summer – given that we’ve had a ‘year with no summer’ so far! The exception has been the far north of Scotland which has had a hot and sunny summer – so much so that they are running out of water!

        • Hi Talla/Renato, what I don´t understand is how such well developed countries such as yours can be running out of water….16 months in Tenerife, with hardly a drop of rain–Tiny little island in the middle of the atlantic just off the coast of Morocco….that has managed to fight god knows how many forest fires using thousands upon thousands of litres of that precious and valuable water, and still no one is saying empty that swimming pool, or don´t water your garden or wash the car….surely in this day and age, with all the modern science and engineering techniques available….countries such as UK or Brazil should not have such problems…if it was Etheopia or some other “third world” really dry country I could understand it………….

          • It’s because we expect to always get a lot of rain so there is not really that much storage – especially in Scotland where they have really heavy rain usually – if we were a drought-ridden country I doubt if we could support 60 million people. Dry countries make the maximum use of their water because they get so little. During the drought which ended so spectacularly this summer the authorities were talking about building new reservoirs and introducing water metering for all (which is what I am used to in every other country I’ve lived in). Now that we are once more awash the calls have died down again.

  5. The earthquake swarm is still going on in Brennisteinsfjöll area. It seems to follow still the old fault lines, like in the map here, PDF-p. 72: Also the N-S direction is well known in this region. I still think it is tectonic like the other 5.000 or so (micro)quakes of the known swarms.

    On the other hand, there is of course also an active volcanic system underneath. Some reading material on that: 🙂

    • And an answer to Jamie (02:34) re. Christianity Lava:
      There was an eruption back in the year 1.000 AD on Hellisheidi which is attributed to the Brennisteinsfjöll system. And it is said that it was in June at the same time when the Thing (the Medieval Icelandic Parlament) was coming together in Thingvellir. They met there just for 2 weeks per year in June, because it was the best time for travel from all parts of the country. And in the year 1.000, they had a row, because part of them were Christians and another part of them heathens who revered the old Nordic gods like Thor or Odin with the hammer, and each party wanted the other to take over their religion. They even were on the brink of a civil war between the parties – when in the middle of it, there arrived a messanger who told them that there was “a fire up on the heath” (Hellisheidi). As far as history tells us, nobody got hurt – neither in the eruption (a small effusive one) nor at Thingvellir, because in the end they all became Christians, but were first allowed to practive the old rites clandestinely.

    @ ALL

    Please remember to credit any pictures used eg
    Picture from/by/in xxx publication etc


    • It’s dead easy, really.

      Anyone fancy summing up what’s been going on at El Hierro for those of us who haven’t been following recent events too closely?

      • Or Yasur? I’d love to know a bit about that volcano (Lucas? … nudge, nudge … Ah, go on, go on! You know you want to!!) 🙂

    • Thank you Alan.
      Please people… this call is urgent.
      Alan and me will be on holiday (He will be in scottland( Is that right Alan?) i will go to Tenerife)) A blog does not run itself and needs posts ever so often.
      Carl is absent and we don’t know for how much longer this will be the case, …
      I never thought i would be able to publish a single post now i have published over 20. But many were written be others. Schteve helped out, as did Diana and UKViggen. And you read the results.. brilliant…
      Please try and send a post. Keeping this blog alive is a team effort.
      Thank you

    • My only problem is that some of my stuff is… err.. “esoteric.”

      I can yammer on about arcane stuff, but I’m not that sure it will draw much attention from someone that already doesn’t have an interest in it. Hell, I even put myself to sleep reading some if it.

  7. @ All
    OT plea for information!
    I have a large 1.5m+ high/diameter Cycad that needs urgent repotting ‘cos it’s very top-heavy with 11 x 1m+ long new fronds- anyone know of the correct compost requirements please!!

  8. Avcan have made a statement and are asking in a round about way do the lives of the islanders mean so little that for a month there is not one word from any govermental source about whats been happening in El Hierro .

    ,,The only thing we ask is information reliable, open and quality, for example once a week in Pre-alerta situation and daily from the traffic light yellow in the style of the USGS… but nothing. ,,

    The full statement which will need to be translated can be read on :

    • ….well they will get a major conference in October that hopefully will provide a lot of hot air and a little useful information but there is a wide range of ‘social events’ also to keep the participants happy. One really made me laugh – on the Wednesday they’re showing a film ‘Pompey – the last day’ ……ooopsie ! That will cheer up the locals – the prospect of being ‘petrified’ in more ways than one !! 🙂

      Click to access Segunda_Circular_%20El%20Hierro_2012_Conference.pdf

      Oh dear, scientists aren’t diplomats are they ?

      • Oh I say……………..look who is on the organising committee… the one and only…………..Nemesio Pérez….that should please one Swedish guy around here, (not!….(that is the “he” that “is” this place, but not actually here at the moment!)

        • Hi Jim, thanks for posting that……despite the long and impressive list of scientists, organisations and professional bodies attending or organising this event, basically it seems to be inviting Joe Public to a couple of free glasses of wine and a few free entrances to some volcano movies…I don´t think I will be rushing over to attend…..

  9. Hi

    Update on the density plots. I have summarized for the period from July 14th to September 2nd.
    The trend is very clear, first we have swarms to the south and west then after the beginning of august, the EQ move to The El Golfo area.

  10. There have been 9 earthquakes since midnight the strongest one at 1.8 was only at 2km deep.

    1163754 05/09/2012 02:13:54 27.7122 -18.1003 2 1.8 4 SW FRONTERA.IHI [+] info

  11. Thank you, UKviggen for the very interesting article.

    I was just asking me what would be the title under the picture next to “A threat to society” (to the left of the chapter), it’s the same as of the picture below this part of text – where as I think it should be, because the dome at the picture to the left is not building up any more, it is in the first stage of collapse. 🙂

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