Russian Kolka Glacier Collapses

Russian Kolka Glacier Collapses

This photograph of Mt. Kazbek was taken from the International Space Station on August 13, 2002. The astronauts and cosmonauts took the photograph at the request of the Russian URAGAN Project, which is studying changes in the world’s glaciers in response to global climate change. Although scientists have predicted the possibility of large glacial collapses as the climate warms, no one predicted that tragedy would strike the mountain village of Karmadon, a little more than a month later.

On September 20, a collapse of a hanging glacier from the slope of Mt. Dzhimarai-Khokh onto the Kolka Glacier triggered an avalanche of ice and debris that went over the Maili Glacier terminus then slid more than 15 miles (24 km). The avalanche buried small villages in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia, killing dozens of people. Where the ice stopped, the glacial debris flow dammed rivers further below. Several lakes formed and one of them flooded a village. These lakes are now threatening to burst and form debris flows.

This photograph shows the lower part of the Kolka Glacier terminus, onto which the glacier from Mt Dzhimarai-Khokh collapsed—the mountain itself is further to the west. However, the Maili Glacier and its terminus, as well as the upper part of the Genaldon River valley that was filled by the debris slide, can be seen clearly in the photo. In this very detailed view, Karmadon is much further to the north.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1902, the same kind of catastrophe happened in this valley, killing 32 people. In 1969, Kolka Glacier surged but there were no casualties and the villages were not affected. The 1969 surge was studied by a special expedition, but after the glacier stabilized, research in the area stopped. Researchers concluded that the 1902 catastrophe was also the result of a glacier surge. However, the latest data on the 2002 catastrophe raise doubts about this conclusion—it is possible that the 1902 event resulted from a similar cascade of collapses.

Russian scientists—including Olga Tutubalina, University of Cambridge, Dmitry Petrakov, Sergei Chernomorets (Moscow State University), and Lev Dessinov, Russian Academy of Sciences—have been cooperating with the NASA Crew Earth Observations Project to help interpret detailed glacier imagery captured from space. International Space Station crewmembers are surveying glaciers around the world using their low orbit and high-magnification lenses to get high-spatial-resolution images.

Astronaut photograph ISS005-E-9691 was provided by the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA-JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.