These posts will highlight a few of the adventures I’ve had this spring while on sabbatical. I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to go to the far east of Russia two times: once in late January and once in March/April. I traveled to observe, monitor, sample and measure the properties of lavas being erupted at eruption on Tolbachinsky Dol, which is the southern flank of Plosky Tolbachik, a large volcano in central Kamchatka.
January visit consisted of snow camping for about 5 days at a location that was about 1.5 km from the active vent. When the wind was quiet at night we could easily hear the ‘whomp whomp whomp’ of the bursting lava bubbles from the vent lava lake. Occasionally the tent door with undulate gently to the sound as well. While our main goal was to document interactions between the lava and snow, this first trip proved to be a bit difficult as most of the lava flows were moving within the confines of the flow field, and we only saw active flows moving onto snow on the last day as we were flying out. The views we had were compelling – large ‘a’a flows moving across the snow, with small steam puffs accentuating the impact of the bigger blocks as they rolled on to the snow. BUT, it was too windy to land!! So my heart sank a bit as we flew away…but we had gotten to investigate some strange looking flows that I suspected had been emplaced into/beneath snow, but without seeing the process it was difficult to be certain. The trip was spectacular in many ways – we sampled lava from active channels several times, and I got to make my first attempts at measuring the temperatures of large-scale lava flows with thermocouples. It was quite a bit more challenging than anticipated – even though the lava was moving at velocities of 1-2 m per second, the upper surface was relatively viscous and difficult to penetrate. Even collecting samples was a bit of a struggle (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35mVYYrstaA).
When we returned for the first 10 days of April, we hit the jackpot! The activity had shifted back the to East Flow Field, and we had complete access to the flows every day. We saw lavas moving on top of snow, beneath snow, and moving through fractures in the snow (essentially basalt dikes in snow!). We dug ‘lava observation pits’ in the snow in front of advancing lava flows, so we could see up close how the lava was moving through the snow, and how much melting was happening at the lava-snow interface.