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In a Land of Fire and Ice
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Kamchatka Peninsula

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By Jeremy Schmidt Photographs by Carsten Peter

A hardy team reveals the explosive peaks and steam-pocked glaciers of Kamchatka, land of more than a hundred volcanoes.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In March 2000, steam blasts rocked one of the craters while within it a glacier began to collapse. A large section of the glacier vanished, and a green acidic lake, 650 feet (200 meters) in diameter, appeared amid the broken ice…

We set out just after dawn to follow a turbid river up into that crater. Our path led across slopes of wet, slippery ash, past fumaroles belching steam. Scrambling across the glacier, its surface a mass of dirty ice and cinders, we skirted the lake and climbed to a narrow divide. Standing on ice, we felt the hot breath of fumaroles; around us rose the steep crater walls lined with red and yellow deposits of crystalline sulfur. Slabs of glacier peeled off and crashed into the sour pea green water.

Carsten was ecstatic. When he and Franck decided to crawl under the glacier into a dark ice cave carved by a river of warm, acid water, I followed. Feodor just shook his head.

We crab-walked under huge blocks of ice that had fallen around the entrance, then waded through shallow water to the edge of darkness. Pale light shafted down from crevasses in the roof, barely illuminating a world of gray: gray shadows, gray ice, gray volcanic ash, gray river. The inner walls, scalloped by steam and flowing water, were hung with icicles.

The ice groaned above and around us—the internal workings of the glacier as it melted and moved. The hairs on my neck rose, and with them dreadful imaginings. Not only could the tunnel implode at any moment but also the lake, held back by only a wall of ice, could drain in a flash. It looked as if part of the cave had collapsed a few weeks earlier—what if another eruption, or even a slight earthquake, occurred while we were down there? As Carsten cheerfully put it, “The lake is above you, of course. You should feel as in a mousetrap.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kamchatka was shrouded in secrecy. The peninsula was strictly off-limits to foreigners and most Russians. The reason? A military base in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, located at the southern end of the peninsula, housed submarines that carried nuclear ballistic missiles.

Located nine time zones east of Moscow, the peninsula is closer to the Americas than it is to the Russian capital. Some people may recognize “Kamchatka” from playing Risk, a board game where the objective is to conquer the world. As Kamchatka is one of the easternmost possible military outposts in Asia, it is not surprising that in the game it is valued as strategic territory. A quick hop across the Bering Sea, and invasions could readily begin.

Now technology is taking a greener turn. Instead of focusing on nuclear subs, scientists are looking at ways to harness the geothermal energy of this volatile land. Russia’s only geothermal stations are located in Kamchatka, and scientists hope the energy these stations produce can be used to augment Kamchatka’s deficient fuel supply.

—Christy Ullrich

Kamchatka Travel Company
Discover the history and beauty of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The Global Volcanism program of the Smithsonian Institution
This web page discusses Volcanic Region 10, which includes Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, and mainland Asia.

Alaska Volcano Observatory
This site features an area map of the Kamchatka volcanoes and discusses various types of volcanoes, their locations, and elevations.

How Volcanoes Work
Sponsored by NASA, this is an educational resource that describes the science behind volcanoes and volcanic processes.


Gippenreiter, Vadim. Kamchatka: Land of Fire and Ice. Laurence King Publishing, 1992.

Krasheninnikov, Stepan. Explorations of Kamchatka: 1735-1741. Oregon Historical Society, 1972.

Maier, Frith. Trekking in Russia and Central Asia. The Mountaineers, 1994.

Prager, Ellen. Furious Earth. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Simkin, Tom, and Lee Siebert. Volcanoes of the World. Smithsonian Institution, 1994.


Webster, Donovan. “Inside the Volcano,” National Geographic (November 2000), 50-65.

Nigge, Klaus. “The Russian Realm of Steller’s Sea-Eagles,” National Geographic (March 1999), 60-71.

Newcott, William R. “Into the Heart of Glaciers,” National Geographic (February 1996), 70-81.

Hodgson, Bryan. “Kamchatka: Russia’s Land of Fire and Ice,” National Geographic (April 1994), 36-67.

Dall, William H. “A Critical Review of Bering’s First Expedition, 1725-30, Together with a Translation of His Original Report Upon It,” National Geographic (May 1890), 111-169.


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