From the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk rises a vision of natural beauty. Located some 70 km west of the tip of the Kamchatka peninsula is a volcanic island of near-perfect symmetry, its treeless sides curving gracefully upwards to a flat-profiled crater top that is often crowned with snow. Its shape has been an instantly recognisable navigation aid to both local fishermen and sailors from distant lands for centuries, and its beauty has inspired art and legends.
According to one of those legends, the mountain had once stood among those on the mainland. Its neighbours, jealous of its great beauty, had banished the mountain from their midst, exiling it to the sea. A large lake filled the void where it had once stood, but although the beauty had been uprooted, it left its heart behind to mark the place.
That was one of many folk tales told by the local people to Stepan Krasheninnikov*, an 18th century Russian naturalist and geographer. (An alternative version of the tale is that the mountain – much taller than its neighbours and often blocking out their sun – became tired of bickering with them and left to find a quieter spot.)
- Between 1731 and 1742 Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov studied Kamchatka as part of the Second Kamchatkan Expedition led by Vitus Bering. As well as providing a detailed account of the peninsula’s fauna and flora, he also studied and recorded the lives and languages of the indigenous peoples. It is my intention that we get to meet Krasheninnikov again at some point in the near future in another post!
The island volcano is Alaid, and the lake it ‘left behind’ in southern Kamchatka is the Kuril Lake, which was formed by a Tambora-sized VEI7 caldera event around 8,000 years ago. Rising from this lake is a small, steep-sided island that is known as Serdtse Alaida – the Heart of Alaid – which is a lava dome that extruded through the floor of the sunken caldera.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after the island had officially become the northernmost outpost of the Japanese empire, Alaid became something of an icon in that nation’s art. With its similarities to the holy mountain of Mount Fuji the island was celebrated and romanticised in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and in haiku verse.
What shall we call it?
An island of such beauty (and volcanic activity) does not go unnoticed, and from both indigenous peoples (Ainu to the south and Itelmen to the north) and imperial masters (Russia and Japan) it has gained a number of names. In Japanese the island is known as Oyakoba, with a Russian equivalent of Uyakhuzhach, or Araido (which corresponds to the Russian Alaid). The latter appears to be the most commonly used, and Krasheninnikov referred a number of times to the island of ‘Alaide’.
Russia later officially named the island as Ostrov (island) Atlasova, after the Cossack explorer Vladimir Atlasov, who had claimed Kamchatka for Imperial Russia in the 1690s through a mix of trade with welcoming natives and the massacre of those who were less receptive. Atlasov travelled far enough south in the peninsula to see the island that would later bear his name, but almost certainly did not sail there.
Just to clear up any confusion, here we are talking about Alaid volcano and Atlasov island, and not Atlasov volcano and Alaid island! There is a volcano called Atlasov (on the Kamchatkan peninsula, better known as Nylgimelkin) and an island called Alaid (in the Semichi islands, part of the Aleutian chain).
Atlasov is the northernmost island of the Kuril chain, an arced string of islands that stretches for 1250 km from the tip of the Kamchatka peninsula in the north to the large Japanese island of Hokkaido in the south. They demarcate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. Like the Aleutian chain that reaches from further north in Kamchatka to Alaska, the Kurils are a perfect example of island arc volcanism, produced by subduction as the Pacific plate slams into the Okhotsk plate at the high rate of around 8 to 9 cm per year.*
- A fascinating paper on the GPS-based modelling of Okhotsk plate movement and rotation can be found here – http://seismo.berkeley.edu/~apel/research/papers/2006GL026077.pdf)
All of the islands in the arc were created by subduction volcanism, and today 36 volcanoes are considered as active, with a further 32 dormant volcanic centres having been identified. To date 98 submarine volcanoes have also been discovered within the island chain. Records of volcanic activity prior to 1900 are sketchy at best, and are virtually non-existent from before the early 18th century.
For most of its history Atlasov island has been uninhabited, although Krasheninnikov reported that local people travelled there to hunt sea lions (presumably Steller’s sea lion, Eumetopias jubatus, which is the largest of the family). His notes reported that: ‘In [their] vessels they go to the desert island Alaide, which lies out at sea about thirty miles, and are sometimes carried four, five, and even eight days without seeing any land, exposed to the cold of these climates; and without any compass, they return to their habitations by observing the sun or moon.’ His account of the methods by which the animals were killed is not for the squeamish, although the process appeared to involve as much running away from the enraged beasts as it did stabbing, spearing and clubbing!
More recently people have lived on the island, but only for a brief period. A fish cannery was established at some point, and the derelict remains are still there. It is probable that it was abandoned due to volcanic activity.
Most of the Kuril volcanoes are today monitored by SVERT – the Sakhalin Volcanic Eruption Response Team that is part of the FEB RAS’s Institute of Marine Geology and Geophysics headquartered in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (http://www.imgg.ru). However, Alaid and the five active volcanoes of Paramushir Island (Ebeko, Chikurachki, Fuss Peak, and the Tatarinova and Karpinsky groups) are monitored by KVERT, based in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (http://www.kscnet.ru/ivs/kvert/index_eng.php). The Tokyo VAAC (volcanic ash advisory centre) is the organisation responsible for issuing ash notifications to the aviation community (http://ds.data.jma.go.jp/svd/vaac/data/).
Note: This first part of the article is intended only to set the scene – the second part is the ‘main course’, with details of Alaid volcano itself, its eruptive history and a nearby volcano that few have heard of and no-one has ever seen!
Thanks to KVERT for permission to use images from the agency’s website (http://www.kscnet.ru/ivs/kvert/index_eng.php)
Addendum: Who ‘owns’ the Kurils?
To this day the Kurils remain the subject of unresolved sovereignty issues. From the 17th century the islands were nominally part of Japan but, as the Russian presence strengthened in Kamchatka in the 18th century, so its settlements spread south along the island chain, as far as Iturup (Etorofu). In 1855 the Treaty of Shimoda established the border as lying between the islands of Etorofu (Japan) and Urup (Russia), but in 1875 the Treaty of Saint Petersburg handed all of the islands to Japan while Russia took control of all of Sakhalin (although later forced to cede the southern half after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905).
The Kurils, and Alaid, remained in Japanese hands until the end of World War II. It was in a bay off Iturup island that Admiral Yamamoto assembled – in the great secrecy afforded by the remote location – the strike force that sailed for Hawaii on 26th November 1941 to decimate the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Although the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on 8th August 1945, and swiftly reoccupied the southern half of Sakhalin island, it was not until after the war officially ended on 15th August that the Soviets moved against the Kurils. Between the 18th of the month and 2nd September the 87th Rifle Corps successively occupied all of the islands, and over the next two years expelled all remaining Japanese inhabitants and surrendered forces. During the Cold War the islands were increasingly militarised, including the establishment of a secret submarine base in the flooded caldera of Urataman volcano on Simushir island that could rival anything in a Bond movie.
Since 1945 the two main islands at the south of the chain (Kunashir and Iturup, plus Shikotan and the Habomai rocks) remain claimed by Japan as what it terms its ‘Northern Territories’. A joint declaration in 1956 appeared to have settled the dispute along the lines of the 1855 treaty, but Cold War politics intervened and the agreement was neither ratified nor acted upon.
Attempts to end the dispute have rumbled on for years, and in 2009 led to some minor visa and fishery concessions as a prelude to a hoped-for permanent solution, but the war of words has continued to this day. Japan recently reworded the official history taught in schools to reflect a more hardline approach to its claim on the islands, while Russia has embarked on the reinforcement of its forces deployed in what President Medvedev called in 2011 an “inseparable” part of Russia. – UKV