Virtual Volcano Vacation #124 WINNERS! – Sarychev Peak

Sarychev Peak and Matua Island – Photo by Wikipedia user Eliezg (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I ended up at this week’s destination after having seen it in a photograph misidentified as two different volcanoes in completely different parts of the world.  I suppose such mistakes are to be expected when a volcano’s profile is as iconic as this one. But it probably is not its profile you have seen around the internet but its view from above.  Sometimes a volcano has to go to extreme measures to get noticed, especially when one is up in the north Pacific Ocean in the Kuriles on the island of Matua like Sarychev Peak.

Sarychev Peak is a 1,496 m high stratovolcano that constitutes the 11 km long and 6.5 km wide Matua island. The tallest volcanic peak was originally born within a 3.5 km wide caldera, but grew to fill and overflow the caldera until only a fragment of the old caldera’s rim can be seen on the southwest side. The flatter southeast end of the island features several other less active and much lower-profile cones and vents including Toporkovyi cone, which is separated from the rest of the island by a 1 km stretch of sea.   Sarychev Peak sports a 250 m wide and strikingly deep crater with a jagged rim.  Almost no vegetation grows on the northwest end of the island, but the southeast end is covered in brush and grass.

Matua Island with Sarychev Peak – photographer not credited – image via

Even without the volcano’s enthusiasm, Matua has had a tumultuous and sometimes noisy recent-history. The island had originally been visited but not permanently occupied by the Ainu people of northern Japan and the Kuriles, but in 1855, Japan signed the Treaty of Shimoda, giving the island to Russia. That arrangement lasted until 1875, when the Treaty of St. Petersburg ceded all of the Kuriles back to Japan.  During World War 2, there was a Japanese air base and a garrison of 7,000-8,000 men stationed on Matua. The US Navy and US Army Air Force occasionally bombed and shelled the island, but in the end, they surrendered without resistance to the Russian Red Army after the Russians undertook an invasion of the Kuril Islands. There was a contingent of Soviet Border Troops there after the war up until end fall of the U.S.S.R., at which point the little island once again became uninhabited…all except for brush, grass, some wildlife, and one noisy volcano.

Sarychev Peak rises behind abandoned Cold War Soviet air base – image via

Sarychev Peak has 16 historically recorded eruptions, eight of which took place after World War 2.  Even the Cold War could not keep Sarychev quiet, as eruptions seemed to occur at five to ten year intervals right up until 1989, when the volcano, perhaps feeling more than a bit world-weary, decided to take a 20-year nap, its only activity being fumarolic snoring.

But as often seems the case with explosive volcanoes, Sarychev awoke from his long siesta with the dire need to relieve himself.  the resulting VEI 4 eruption that began on 11 June 2009 is said to be the biggest historical eruption in all of the Kuriles. occasionally disrupting air traffic between North America and East Asia and scattering ash as far as the north end of Urup Island 300 km away.  The eruption continued for ten  days, though sharply decreasing in vigour. But thanks to a passing International Space Station and the observant eye of an astronaut, one amazing series of photos captured the event at its glorious start.

Although the skies over Sarychev’s peak are often obscured by clouds and fog, the eruption cleared away the clouds and permitted a superb view from above. The eruptive column seems to have spread very little, and in the famous image-series below, the column is topped off by a pileus cloud. A pileus is like a lenticular cloud in that it is formed when an updraft of warm air meets cool moist air, bringing it to its dew point and forming a white “bonnet”..except pilei (I love Latin plurals) form over other clouds instead of over mountains.

Congratulations to Granyia for finding me almost as soon as I arrived, and also to Aficientifico, who found me the next day, and to Glenn, who just snuck in under the wire.  This particular adventure has been not only a joy for volcano-fanciers like us, but also has opened up a bit of a can of worms for those of us who are fascinated by weird history. Getting to the truth regarding an isolated Soviet military base can take a reader through all manner of strange rumours and speculation…but that’s another topic for another blogger. I’ll just stick to volcanoes. They’re less complicated.  As for this volcanohead, I will be here next week as usual, but might be taking the week after off.  I am also taking into consideration a few new ideas to try out for next week’s challenge that might help boost participation. Drop back in here this coming Monday at 23:00 NYC time and join me for new adventure at a new volcano.


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