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Education & Outreach

Wilderness and volcanology camp

For two weeks last June, American Justin Funk and Russian Anastasia Tranbenkova hiked 20 kilometers a day up and down mountains through a moonscape of ash and volcanic rock in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park. The valley, devoid of trees and shrubs that normally characterize the landscape of southern Alaska, is what remains of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, in which Novarupta volcano buried 100 square kilometers beneath volcanic deposits as much as 300 meters deep in June 1912.

Students stand on the deposit from an ash flow from the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano in Katmai National Park in Alaska. They have the option of going to either Russia or Alaska — or both — as part of the two-week volcanology field school. Photo courtesy of John Eichelberger.

Two months later and 3,000 kilometers west, Tranbenkova and another group of students traveled to another remote site, this one in Kamchatka, Russia. There, students camped in the midst of two of Kamchatka’s most active volcanoes — Gorely and Mutnovsky — both of which have explosively erupted as recently as 1986 and 2000 respectively, and have left geysers, fumaroles and crusty lava flows in their wakes.

Funk, a senior geology major at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, and Tranbenkova, a graduate student in geochemistry at Kamchatka State Pedagogical University (KSPU) in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksky, Russia, were participants in the International Volcanological Field School. A collaboration between the University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF) and KSPU, with support from the National Science Foundation, the school started in 2004 for Russian, American and Japanese students to learn about active volcano systems.

Undergraduate and graduate students can go to either the Alaskan site or the Russian site (or both, as Tranbenkova did). In both locales, they explore and learn about lava flows, pyroclastic flows, calderas, fumaroles and crater lakes. Another important component, says John Eichelberger, a volcanologist with UAF and a co-leader of the field school, is learning how to travel and do fieldwork in the wilderness — dealing with snow, ice, river crossings, brown bears, camp-cooking, GPS navigation and severe weather, all while working to bridge human barriers of language and culture.

“I could spend an entire semester in the classroom and still not learn as much as I did in the two weeks I spent in the field,” Funk says.

“The conception of the field school envisages joint scientific research work of young Russian scientists and their colleagues from the United States and Japan,” says Dmitry Melnikov, a volcanologist at KSPU and a program co-leader. The students get theoretical and practical knowledge of these unique geological regions with active volcanic systems, he says.

On most days, the participants hike from 10 to 30 kilometers, sometimes up steep and muddy slopes, from the base camp (mountaineering tents surrounding a “lecture” hut) to the “sights” — the craters, geysers and lava flows — hearing lectures all the way there and back, Eichelberger says. He and the other professors, as well as the graduate students, teach as they traverse the landscape, interspersing bits of volcanic wisdom with bear lore and sea shanties.

Before signing up for the school, students should be aware of the rigors of field camp, Eichelberger says. They have to be in good physical condition, capable of undertaking long, strenuous hikes carrying substantial weight, and be willing to camp under grueling conditions.

“It is by far the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done,” says Jamie Cundiff, an undergraduate majoring in geology and environmental sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who participated in the Katmai trip last summer. And “primitive” and “remote” don’t begin to describe the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, she says. “It was so surreal — it seemed like you were on another planet,” especially at night, as the sun did not set until after midnight.

The eruption of Novarupta, in the Katmai valley, was as strong as Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption and had 100 times the power of the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. Thousands of fumaroles — volcanic vents where gases and vapors are emitted — punctuated the landscape for years following the eruption, which also left a 3-kilometer-diameter crater (Katmai Caldera) that now tops a formerly 2,500-meter-high volcano and hosts a 250-meter-deep lake. Getting there involves a float plane, a four-wheel-drive bus and a 30-kilometer hike.

Getting to the Russian camp location is no small feat either. Mutnovsky volcano is an otherworldly looking assemblage of massive volcanoes, a caldera, lake- and ice-filled craters and wildly active fumaroles. Remote though it is, the area also has the only large geothermal plant in the far north Pacific. Gorely Volcano comprises a complex of five small overlapping stratovolcanoes within a large caldera and 11 summit and 30 side craters, some of which contain acid or freshwater crater lakes. To get there, American students take a four-hour plane ride from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk, followed by several hours in four- and six-wheel-drive trucks and then a 10-kilometer hike to the camp, trudging through snowfields and dust storms, and meadows glowing with fireweed and rhododendron along the way.

Although both camps take place in the summer — Katmai in June and Kamchatka in August — the weather can be downright nasty, Eichelberger says. And it changes quickly, Melnikov adds: Some days are warm and sunny, and some are cold, rainy and windy. One day in Kamchatka, the group was struck by a strong typhoon that destroyed their mountaineering tents and left all 30 participants cramped and sleeping in the small hut where lectures and meals are given. Other times, the weather forced the students inside the hut for the whole day, and the professors lectured for nine hours straight — “people weren’t exactly the friendliest by the end,” Funk says.

But it’s well worth the trouble, the students say. “It was an incredible experience, extending my knowledge about the geology of volcanic regions and giving me experience working in an international setting,” Tranbenkova says.

At first, Cundiff says, there was quite a language barrier (the program does suggest a working knowledge of English or Russian, or ideally both, but translators are along on the trip). But the cultural differences and language challenges led to much laughter as the students figured out what they were saying to each other.

Learning how to count to 10 in Japanese and how to sing a Russian song or two became an integral part of the program. “The communication of the students with each other plays a great role,” Melnikov says. In the end, Tranbenkova says that her favorite parts of the trips were “getting to know really special people from different backgrounds.”

“The camp was probably the single greatest experience of my life so far,” Funk says. “I only hope I get to do more things like that in the future.”

Megan Sever

Applications for the summer 2005 field camp are due on April 1. See program Web site for more details.

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