Shiveluch – the Bad Boy of Kamchatka: Part Two

With the Baidarny lava ridge and caldera rim in the foreground, Shiveluch broods in 1994. The smoking cone sits in a crater that was believed to have been formed in the major collapse event of 600 years ago. (Alexander Belousov)

For nearly a century after the 1854 eruption Shiveluch had been highly active, building cones that had eventually filled the ‘crater within a crater’ that had most likely been formed in the last major collapse event of 600 BP. But then, in 1950, activity came to a halt apart from steaming. For over a decade there were no explosions, no eruptions, no extrusions.

“I’ve just been ‘away’ for a while … or  ”The ‘Big One’ of 1964

One might have been lulled into some sense of security by this lack of explosive action, but such is Shiveluch’s character that it can never be ignored. The first inkling of renewed activity came on 24 January 1964, when an earthquake was recorded under the mountain. Seismic activity ebbed and flowed as the year progressed, but during October intense activity set in.

At around midnight on the night of 11/12 November the quakes increased in severity and frequency to the point where they became individually unreadable on the seismographs. Some were felt up to 80 km away in Kliuchi. These quakes were entirely magmatic in nature, and reached M6 in strength as magma pushed upwards. Degassing from the magma as it rose almost certainly increased pore-fluid pressure within the edifice itself, further adding to the stress in the system.

With Shiveluch still gripped by the dark of the Kamchatkan winter night, the strongest quake yet hit the mountain at 07:07, and the eruption started. It kicked off in spectacular fashion with over a cubic kilometre of structural edifice collapsing and forming a massive debris avalanche that tumbled down the mountain, picking up speed as it glided over a lower layer of churning, bouncing fragments.

A phreatic explosion followed almost immediately, releasing a large, gypsum-rich ash cloud. After 13 minutes, with the magma’s route to the surface having been cleared to an extent by the landslide and explosion, Plinian activity began with juvenile tephra being ejected. From 07:47 pumiceous pyroclastic flows were formed. Volcanic tremor and air wave energy (recorded by barometer) increased at this time, peaking at around 08:10, and then subsided swiftly a few minutes later. The eruption ended at 08:22.

In little over an hour it had all but swept away Suelich and the other post-1854 lava domes, as well as the hill known as Arbuzik, which was probably a ‘toreva’-type slide-block from the 600 BP collapse. Shiveluch had thus essentially returned to close to its 600 BP topography, at least at the top of the mountain. Lower down, the leading elements of the debris avalanche spread rubble deposits out to 16 km distance. The avalanche covered an area of 98 km⌃2, with an average depth of 3 to 15 metres, although in places depressions were filled with deposits up to 150 metres deep. The final elements of the structure to fall resulted in large, backwards-rotating ‘toreva’ blocks sliding down the slope to come to rest across the breached crater, forming giant ‘steps’ that are visible today. The eruption also produced an estimated 0.8 km⌃3 of juvenile material through the initial Plinian phase and the more productive pyroclastic flow phase.


Before and after photos show the enormous scale of the 1964 collapse. Note that the entire central dome complex is gone, redistributed across a wide area at Shiveluch’s base. (Yuri Doubik, IVS Petropavlovsk via GVP website)

In the initial analysis of the eruption a ‘directed blast’ element was suspected, as had happened at Bezymianny in 1956 and Mount St Helens in 1980. However, subsequent research by Belousov and colleagues showed that this had not been the case. A lack of directed blast was attributed to the fact that the volcano had failed structurally before potentially explosive magma had risen into the edifice itself, unlike in the other two volcanoes where magma-filled cryptodomes had formed and had become visually obvious in the days prior to the eruptions. No such deformation was noted at Shiveluch.

In the case of Bezymianny and Mount St Helens it was the ‘over-steeping’ of the cryptodomes that had most likely initiated the eruptive sequences, whereas in the 1964 Shiveluch eruption it was probably the large earthquake at 07:07 that had triggered the structural failure. This, in turn, had released hydrothermal pressure in the system, producing a relatively small phreatic explosion. In the other volcanoes the collapses had released magmatic pressure, resulting in cataclysmic lateral blasts.

Devoted to a life of crime
Following its big effort in 1964 Shiveluch took a short break, but by 1980 it was back at work, forming another lava dome in the inner crater. That eruption lasted for two years, and was followed by another in 1984. Activity steadily increased through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, with the volcano constantly active – and growing – for six years until 1995.


Unaware of what is to unfold, volcanologists work on the upper slopes of Young Shiveluch (above) on 12 August 1986. On the following day, and with little warning, the dome exploded (below) and the area where they had been working was hit by a pyroclastic surge. As the photographer wryly commented, “Safety helmets would not have been much use.” (Photos by Alexander Iv. Malyshev via KVERT website)


Shorter periods of activity in the late 1990s were then replaced by sustained activity that began in August 1999, and which continues to this day. This period of near-continuous eruption has been punctuated by some major episodes, most notably that of February 2005. The dome complex now stands at around 2,500 metres above sea level, just below the peak of Young Shiveluch (also called the Fourth Summit) at 2,763 metres.

A threat to society?
Unlike many dangerous volcanoes, which seem to have attracted sizeable populations around them, Shiveluch represents only a limited danger to humans because there are thankfully few people living nearby. However, the small town of Kliuchi, 50 km distant, is at major risk from ashfall, and its soils show evidence of significant falls from past eruptions. This town is home to the volcanic observatory that watches the mountain and the Kliuchevskaya group (it also has a military airfield serving the Kura ICBM impact test range to the north of Shiveluch). The small coastal town of Ust-Kamchatsk at the mouth of the Kamchatka River is also under some threat from Shiveluch, and there is some evidence that the larger events (including that of 1964) have had some global reach.

Shiveluch’s main irritation, though, is to air traffic. KVERT seems to have the volcano on a permanent orange alert, and explosive eruptions routinely send ash clouds to 8,000 metres and above, including one earlier this year that nearly topped out at 10,000 metres. Most of the traffic in the region is flying above this level as it heads to Japan and other Far East destinations from Europe and the US. Nevertheless, Shiveluch does have the potential to pump ash up to 20,000 metres or so, where it would severely hamper air operations over a wide area.


Looking up from the mouth of the 1964 crater and the smouldering dome is growing well 30 years later. The ‘step’ in the foreground was formed by large slide-blocks coming to rest at the end of the 1964 collapse. (Alexander Belousov)

It seems that Shiveluch will continue to follow what appears to be a well-established pattern of behaviour (a dangerous assumption to make with volcanoes, of course). Dome-building is the name of the game, leading to an eventual catastrophic collapse every few hundred years, with the interval appearing to be shortening. A ‘best-guess’ estimate of when the next major collapse may occur, based on historic behaviour and dome-growth rates, points to around 2350/2550.

Along the way there will be numerous eruptions with heavy ashfall, pyroclastic flows, lahar formation and block-and-ash flows, accompanied by less-than-catastrophic structural failures and minor landslides. According to analysis, the delivery of magma to the wide chamber that underlies the structure is estimated at a whopping 36 x 10⌃6 tonnes per year, a considerably higher figure than for other volcanoes in the region.

Community service
By most criteria Shiveluch is bad to the bone, but even the worst offender has at least one redeeming feature. In a 1997 paper a team of Kamchatkan volcanologists stated that: “We tephrochronologists love Shiveluch dearly because its numerous ashfall layers can be traced over vast territories, and thus serve as excellent markers in Holocene studies, including dating of other volcanic deposits and landforms, tsunami and landslide deposits, river and marine terraces, archaeological sites etc.” Ash layers from single eruptions have reached over 400 km from Shiveluch, and over 100 eruptions in the Holocene period have left their individual tephra/avalanche signatures at distances of greater than 10 km from the volcano.


A north-orientated false-colour ASTER image from the Terra satellite on 25 February 2012 highlights the huge, south-facing horseshoe-shaped caldera formed by the 10,000 BP collapse of Old Shiveluch, as well as the much smaller crater of similar shape in which the dome currently grows. The light brown staining leading away from the cone to the southeast is ashfall on snow, and the dark brown patch near the bottom right corner is the deposit from a recent pyroclastic flow that reached around 8 km from the vent. (NASA)

Shiveluch has also played its part in the development of sensor fusion techniques for monitoring volcanoes. In August 2005, while Shiveluch was in a period of rapid dome growth following an explosive eruption in late February, US scientists flew over the volcano in a helicopter, gathering high-resolution thermal images with accurate spatial references. The data gathered revealed a crease structure at the centre of the dome, and a crescent-shaped high-temperature zone leading away from it.

While this imagery gave scientists useful immediate evidence concerning the nature of silicic lava dome growth, the heliborne thermal imager data was also compared with that from long-range ground cameras, and with images from the ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) space sensor. By fusing imagery from all three sources, scientists gained a greater understanding of the thermal patterns in the dome, and gained another valuable technique for the study of other domes, notably the ability to estimate rates of extrusion.

Shiveluch looms over the wide Kamchatka river valley in a recent view. (Elena Klimenko, distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons licence)

Why is Shiveluch so active?
Here I run completely out of knowledge, but a look at the map shows that Shiveluch stands very close to the triple junction of Pacific, Okhotsk and North American plates. It is the subduction of the Pacific under the Okhotsk that is the principal driver of volcanism in Kamchatka, as well as the source of several tsunami-inducing M9+ ‘megathrust’ earthquakes in the region (including, of course, that which recently struck Japan). Might it be possible that the lesser subduction effects of the Okhotsk/North American plate boundary* might complicate matters at the northern end of the main Pacific/Okhotsk boundary, and give Shiveluch just that extra bit of magmatic ‘oomph’?
(*the nature and very existence of this plate boundary remains the subject of some debate)
Certainly Shiveluch’s rocks are of a subtly different make-up to those of the Kliuchevskaya group to the south. Apart from two medium-silica tephra-producing eruptions around 3,600 and 7,600 BP, Shiveluch’s products are typically high-silica, medium-potassium andesites, although they are close in composition to some adakite forms (named after an island in the Aleutian arc), exhibiting similar REE (rare earth element) traces, such as high strontium/yttrium and lanthanum/ytterbium ratios. Compared with other medium-potassium andesites from Kamchatka, those from Shiveluch also have higher chromium, magnesium and nickel contents.

Acknowledgments: Information for this article was drawn from a number of sources, but I must cite Alexander and Marina Belousov, and their colleagues, for the research papers that form the basis for much of this article. Errors are, of course, my own.

Many additional images of Shiveluch’s recent activity can be viewed here:


Update 10.10.2012

Topey says: October 10, 2012 at 09:56

Wonderful NASA photo of the ash plume from Shiveluch:

ukviggen says: October 10, 2012 at 11:15

Thanks Topey – great pic. Glad to see my old mate is still up to his bad-boy ways!

And here’s the moment it went boom. All over very quickly judging from the webcam archive (at the link on the photo).

Webcam image


220 thoughts on “Shiveluch – the Bad Boy of Kamchatka: Part Two

  1. Good Morning Diana did you see my post about the geothermal map of all the Canary islands I posted I think a day or two ago. I am sure the waters around El Hierro were hotter than the other islands?

    • I have been away Judith. Thank you for telling me about this. I shall look it up. I wonder if the gas smells are strong near there as well.

    • Good Morning, all. 🙂

      This wouldn’t say a lot if the waters around El Hierro would be hotter than around the other Canarian islands, because the volcano after its eruption is still hot, heat is emanating eg. through fumaroles and the stones are also emanating heat which the surrounding sea waters would take up. It would just be normal after an eruption. Only if the temperature of the water at certain depth / or locations would be measured and proved to be decreasing certain degrees that could be an indicator of new activity. – But difficult to perform, as the islands flancs are so steep (would very probably need the help of an submersible).

  2. OT Rant.

    Some of you may remember a few of my more vociferous railings against moon-bats. Generally it ends with me throwing copious amounts of data in the form of a plot or two and then asking the claimant to identify what specifically it is that indicates what they claim.

    This comes from a personality feature (or defect if you wish to categorize it as such). I detest being jerked around. It pisses me off to no end, and has resulted in me shunning any and all music by Metallica, though I had managed to find a couple of their songs tolerable. Due to their position in the Napster events, I will not listen to another piece of their music… period. Radio? Station changed, no questions.

    The same thing applies to commercials, if they irritate me by running too long, or insult my intelligence by berating men in general (a common “humor” element that paints the “dad” as a clutz or outright stupid) then the station gets changed. (and no, I don’t care what group they target as being daft, it’s insulting and it gets changed.)

    So… this evening I am installing a piece of software on my laptop because the client would like me to do everything possible short of shipping the drive off to a professional recovery site. Though I have a referral account with them, their efforts are not low in price. But they are highly successful, even if the drive has been shot by a fire-arm odds are that they can get something off of it. Their prices are so high that I don’t recommend them unless the data on the drive can keep you from being convicted of something or going bankrupt.

    On a personal level, I bought a file recover software package about a year ago, specifically because I needed to recovery some tax information on a croaked drive. For me, it was the cheaper alternative to having to dig around and re build the older tax forms. It filled the need quite well. A year and a half later, I go to re-install the package and then I enter my activation key. Nope. No can activate. ???? Turns out that they have a new version that I can upgrade to, but I can not use the version that I bought and paid for. So, I fired off a curt note to their E-mail that stopped short of telling them to pack sand… but I will never recommend their product again.

    So… what to do?

    Well, I found a pretty neat similar software package… that’s freeware.

    I’m doing a test run on a 700 MB file right now with the laptop, so far it’s looking good. I have my SATA/EIDE to USB adapter working, and I re-configured a 100 Watt Book PC power supply to power the drive. That and an identical spare croaked drive (with a working controller card) and I should have a pretty good chance of getting the clients data off of it.

    Rant off.

    PS: If you have the skill and the guts, Knoppix is a live CD (if I remember correctly) of Linux that has recovery software capable of rummaging around croaked drives. I’ve used it on some of the more zombie like hard drives… you know, the ones that are dead, but still shamble around the house seeking brains to satisfy their hunger.

    • Oh.. here’s a good one for you. While doing a drive on their server, I noticed that they have a pretty hefty SAN node at one of their sites…. and no, the user that the IT guy is having me do the drive for never put the needed files on the server.

      Never underestimate the ability of a user to make a crisis.

      • Lurking……… I never underestimate the ability of most of the population in my town to be below average to to carp!
        I am not an intellectual snob but common sense is now no longer common and I consider it to be endangered.

        • Hi Diana! Welcome back! I agree with you and Lurking, it never ceases to amaze me how gullible some people are, and how easy it is to convince them (with a bit of smoke and mirrors) that 2 + 2 = 5. Then how hard it is to persuade them that it is, and always has been, 4! 🙂

    • I had some fun and games with my PC, I rang and finally got tech support, just told them I know what it is and I just need a new password, only they can do, the other end was surprised and asked how I knew, I just told them it happened about a couple of weeks ago very similar, was on remote thingy, so I kept writing down where they looked for it etc, found the bug fixed it and just needed their say so to ok it. PC’s are only machines was the first thing I did learn many moons ago. I only find things are easy to forget if not used continuously, especially at my age, so make it a habit of writing things down for later use

    • Very vulnerable region, indeed!
      (CNN) — “A series of earthquakes in southwestern China on Friday killed at least 43 people and injured dozens, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.”

        • What is more interesting is the rapidly updating chat window about the different articles.

          This one caught my eye “Ferrari accident unleashes a new scandal in the Chinese PC”

          Turns out the son of one of the highly connected central party guys, Ling Jihua, (an associate of President Hu Jintao) was killed in a Black Ferrari Spyder on the 4th ring road. He was accompanied by two young women, on of which was also naked and the other partially undressed.

          The father of the dead Ferrari driver, Ling Jihua was head of the Directorate General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Now appointed to the role of chief strategic least United Front Department of Labor with responsibility for relations with ethnic minorities.

          … so, with 700,000 affected by the double tap quake set, I’m sure that they are at ease knowing that the guy that deals with their issues can easily afford a Ferrari Spyder, on government salary.

          Little James Dean, up on the screen
          Wond’rin’ who he might be
          Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider
          And took him down the road to eternity

          James Dean, James Dean, you bought it sight unseen

          You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye
          You were to fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye
          Bye-bye, Bye-bye, Bye-bye, Bye, bye

          For those missing the reference in the Eagles song. James Dean, “Rebel Without a Cause” filmstar, died in a Ferrari Spyder. Though he was cut off by another driver who turned into his lane from the opposite direction. Not while having a ménage à trois zipping down the interstate.

  3. another two small quakes near Hekla (one only shows in strainmeters). this area has been experiencing more earthquakes recently. this also happened 1-2 weeks before the last 2000 Hekla eruption. so far, there is a change that this is just tectonics as this is change that this is a pre-eruption movement.

    • Eruptive History

      A study conducted in 2001 determined that Tangkuban Perahu has erupted at least 30 times in the previous 40,750 years. Studies of the tephra layers within 3 km of the crater revealed that twenty one were minor eruptions and the remaining nine were major eruptions. The eruptions that occurred prior to approximately 10,000 years ago were magmatic/phreatomagmatic. The eruptions that occurred after 10,000 years ago were phreatic.”[4]

  4. Oh, dear, death toll in China is rising fast.
    Isn’t it about time that we should re-consider magnitudes for hazard assessment of both, earthquakes and hurricanes? Many a time they are underestimated (landslides and flooding), as in the case of Cat 1 Isaac.

    • Don’t know what the criteria are at the moment, but the criteria do need to take into account local conditions, if they don’t already (suspect they may do).

      e.g. IGN get worried about the threat of landslip from EQs above 4/ 4.5 for El Hierro.

      • Another example is Yellowstone / Grand Teton area.
        The likelihood of an eruption is sooo remote, since Southwestern movement of NA plate is bringing thick crust over the hotspot, but landslides from a large quake (such as Hebgen Lake’s) expected for Basin and Range faulting network are definitely of much greater concern.

        • I don’t buy into the “thick crust over the hotspot” and is shutting it down idea. Ever consider why there is so much rhyolite in Yellowstone magmas? The long burn time to get through a mountain root could very well be why Yellowstone is so energetic when if finally goes.

          As for Isaac… puny. They are hard pressed to locate where there were Cat 1 winds over land. I’ve poked around and can only find Cat 1 over water. Did it dump a lot of water? Yes. They all do… for the most part. Technically, Isaac is still dumping water and it’s remnant had the chance of drifting back over the Gulf and reforming. They didn’t want to call it as still being “Isaac” since that would keep them from adding a new storm to their precious list and would go against their political motivations. In 2004, Ivan drove well north and took a wide loop around, yet retained it’s identity.

          Several years ago, I watched one drive inland over Oklahoma where it sat and rained for three weeks until it ran out of water.

  5. OT. Today is a national holiday in Brazil and I’m taking the free time for some research. Sorry for the profusion of comments. 🙂
    (see Wikipedia’s “Today’s featured article” for more information about the special date.)

  6. Nice sunday morning news!
    Our daughter has become a nice girl!a little our ago!3400 gr Everything is good with baby and mother! Love from Holland! Deanne

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