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Kamchatka Peninsula

Guest Column by GeoT
Dateline: 05/27/02

The volcanic mountain tops of the Kamchatka Peninsula (map) are littered with whale bones, at least that’s what the ancient people who lived there believed. They were convinced that ‘spirits’ called Gomuls lived high in the mountains, and at night they would fly over the ocean to catch whales. The whales were then brought back to the mountain tops for roasting which explained why the mountain tops became lighted at night! No one ever dared to ascend the mountain to find out. Or, if they did, they never returned to tell of it.

Today, there is a slightly different interpretation.

The Kamchatka Peninsula lies in eastern Russia between the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Bering Sea and Pacific ocean to the east. It is a relative newcomer to the geographic scene which explains its volcanic action. It is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire; the Kuril-Kamchatka island arc system, which has many active volcanoes and some two dozen of them are on Kamchatka. This is the result of plate collisions with the Pacific plate diving below the North American plate. As strange as that may seem, a United States Geological Survey map of the plates of the world shows this as correct!

The peninsula is approximately 750 miles long and 300 miles wide. The total area is just a little less than that of Nevada at 104,000 square miles.

Volcanism began in the late Pliocene and ultimately resulted in the speartip-shaped landmass we see today. Not unlike other volcanic areas, as the magma was withdrawn to feed the volcanoes, subsidence of the overlying rock occurred, creating a sort of horst and graben landscape. Modern volcanoes are located atop the eastern fault zones. The Kamchatka River flows in a graben between volcanic areas to the east and west.

The most active volcanoes today are along the eastern and southeastern parts of the peninsula, but an older and quieter zone lies to the west of the Kamchatka River in the central and western regions. Kluchevskoi is a dominating volcano of the Kliuchi Group at the northern end of the eastern volcanic chain. It is over 15,000 feet in elevation and is the largest active volcano in all of Eurasia.

Considering its origins in fire, the climate of Kamchatka is almost the opposite. This land is windswept and has bitterly cold and snowy winters. Summers are cool. Few people live in this part of the world. Subarctic climate dominates and mountain vegetation covers huge areas. The central valley and west coast have peat bogs and mosses resembling tundra. The eastern coastline is rugged due to the active collision and volcanics, while the western coast is more level and swampy.

The few people who do live here (400,000 or so, mostly Russians) earn their living by fishing, canning, sealing, mining, lumbering, shipbuilding, and woodworking. Fishing dominates the economy and huge King crabs are the main catch and exported worldwide. Trapping of fur bearing animals is the occupation of some, and Kamchatka leads all of Russia’s Far Eastern areas in production.

In the graben between the volcanic areas flows the Kamchatka River, and it is here, in somewhat sheltered conditions, that the lumbering and agriculture take place. Agriculture is extremely limited as we might expect, but cattle, and crops of rye, oats, potatoes, and vegetables are grown. There are also small farms in the southern area near the city of Petropavlovsk. Reindeer are raised on the peninsula too.

Kamchatka has its mineral wealth as well though far removed from marketing areas. Deposits of coal, gold, mica, pyrites, sulfur, and tufa (a calcareous porous mass found near hot springs and geysers) are found here.

Southern Kamchatka is even the site of Russia’s only geothermal installation.

Even a bit of tourism is developing as people come to Kronotsky Nature Reserve to see hot springs and geysers kind of like a very remote Russian Yellowstone!

So, even as isolated and inhospitable as Kamchatka is, there are reasons for people to live there and who knows, maybe, sometime, someone will find some whale bones up on the glowing mountaintops!

See some photos of Kamchatka.


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GeoT is a long-time high school geography teacher from Illinois. In addition to geography, he enjoys railroads and model railroads, old Oldsmobiles, and gardening.

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