A devastating mudslide in the world-renowned Geyser Valley on the Kamchatka Peninsula has virtually obliterated the natural wonder, forcing the emergency evacuation of visitors and national park personnel, a spokesman for the local emergencies ministry said Monday.
The site, which is the Kamchatka Peninsula's main tourist attraction, consists of some 200 thermal pools created by the area's intense volcanic activity, including about 90 geysers covering an area of four square kilometers (2.5 square miles). It is one of only five sites in the world where the impressive eruptions of steam and boiling-hot water can be found.
Specialists from Russia's environmental watchdog will arrive at the scene Monday to assess the extent of the damage, while travel agencies have been obliged to cancel visits by tourists from around the world.
According to witnesses, a powerful mudslide 1.5 kilometers (one mile) long and 200 meters (600 feet) wide buried more than two-thirds of the valley beneath tens of meters of snow, dirt, trees and boulders Sunday, forcing the emergency evacuation by helicopter of tourists and park personnel. No injuries were reported.
Tourism officials described the catastrophe as an incredible loss for Russian tourism in general and for the region's economy in particular. About 3,000 visitors are granted access to the unique geyser field every year, paying up to 15,000 rubles ($600) for a four-hour visit, rian.ru reports.
"It is a tremendous loss. It is unlikely that the area will ever recover, although it is possible that a new geyser field will emerge," a spokesman for the Russian tourism agency said.
"The biggest springs may still come through the debris, but most of the others are probably lost forever," a local specialist said.
Experts feared many of the valley's geysers were obliterated.
“We witnessed a unique natural event,” said Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of Russia's environmental watchdog agency Rosprirodnadzor. “But the consequences of such a natural catastrophe are irreversible.”
A sparsely populated peninsula, Kamchatka is located some 4,200 miles from Moscow. It was completely closed to foreigners until 1990 and now attracts thousands of tourists annually with its volcanos, geysers and national parks, the AP reports.
“This is tragic for humankind, in that we have lost one of the great natural wonders of the world,” Laura Williams of the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement posted on the group's Web site. “But for nature, this is only a blip in the history of the planet's evolution.”
The Russian news agency said a similar flood had occurred in 1981 and that the park had recovered from it.
Some of the geysers, which spewed steam every two to eight hours, erupted up to 30 feet into the air, DPA reports.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik
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