The Kamchatka Peninsula is one of the most spectacular, yet inhospitable, regions of Russia. It lies on the easternmost reach of Russia between the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea on the east, and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west. The peninsula extends 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from north to south, and is about 300 miles (or 480 kilometers) at its widest. The region covers approximately 140,000 square miles (370,000 square kilometers). The peninsula is dominated by two mountain ranges. The Sredinny, its central range, forms the spine of the peninsula, while the Vostochny range runs almost parallel along the eastern part of the peninsula. Much of the trough between the ranges is filled with the Kamchatka River Valley. The mountain ranges constitute a long volcanic belt of 127 eruptive volcanoes, 22 of them still being active. The peninsula sits near the ‘Ring of Fire’, the large chronic arc of earthquakes and volcanic activity around the Pacific Rim. The Kamchatka Peninsula is also known as the ‘land of fire and ice’ due to its cold climate and volcanic activity. More than half of the population live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the peninsula’s administrative center. Kamchatka has a severe climate, with extensive cold and snowy winters and wet summers.
The peninsula was inhabited by ethnic tribes until the Cossacks discovered it in the early 17th Century. The tribes were brought into the administration amid excessive taxation and frequent revolts. In 1724, Tsar Peter the Great sent the Danish explorer Vitus Bering to see if there was a land bridge between Asia and America in the north. Though the Bering Strait would be discovered only later, the peninsula came to the world’s attention as a result of the endeavor. Stepan Krasheninnikov’s detailed account of the people, fauna, and customs of Kamchatka brought in its wake the arrival of fur traders. The peninsula’s primary wealth at this time consisted of its wild populations of sables, silver and red foxes, Kalan sea otters, and Brown bears, all of whom were extensively hunted for their skins until well into the Twentieth Century. The peninsula’s location just west of the Aleutian Islands served to help the Soviets' efforts to spy on the U.S. during the Cold War as well.
The UNESCO World Heritage organization considers the Kamchatka Peninsula to be “one of the most outstanding volcanic regions in the world". It has a high concentration of active volcanoes of varied types, along with the wide range of volcanically-related geological features. UNESCO World Heritage has nominated six sites for conservation, which encompass the beauty of the landscape derived by the interplay of active volcanoes and glaciers. The highest volcano on Kamchatka, Kluchevskaya Sopka (peaking at 4,750 meters or 15, 584 feet), is also the largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere. These sites also contain a great diversity of species, notable among which is the world’s largest known variety of salmonoid fish. Due to excessive hunting, the kalans and walrus had nearly disappeared from the peninsula. The Kronotsky Nature Reserve, set up in 1934, is the largest natural reserve in Russia, and is found spanning more than a million hectares.
Habitat and Biodiversity
Due to its climate and geography, Kamchatka boasts of possessing a diverse range of species and abundant wildlife. It is home to some of the largest Grizzly bears in the world. For thousands of years, an unimaginable number of salmon have been teeming in the undammed streams and rivers of the peninsula every summer. Among the carnivores roaming its interiors are the Tundra wolf, the Arctic fox, East Siberian lynx, and wolverine, among other exotic animals. Coexisting with these fierce hunters are large ungulates like the Kamchatka snow sheep, reindeers, and Chukotka moose, one of the largest varieties of moose in the world. The peninsula is also a fertile breeding ground for the Stellar’s sea eagle, one of the largest species of eagles in the world, along with the Golden eagle and Andgyr falcon. The productive waters off Kamchatka host such marine denizens as orcas, porpoises, Humpback whales, Sperm whales, Fin whales, Gray whales, Blue whales, and Bowhead whales. Other marine animals of the region include sea lions, sea otters, walruses, Bearded seals, Northern fur seals, and Spotted seals.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
Stalin invaded four Japanese islands in the disputed northern territories between Hokkaido and the Kamchatka Peninsula three days after Japan’s surrender in World War II. The issue has been a potboiler into Russia-Japan relations even since, with both sides firm in their positions over territorial claims. Leaders of both nations have been reluctant to come to a compromised settlement for fear of domestic backlash. The dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal post-World War II peace treaty even up until now, and, as of 2016, such a treaty formally ending World War II hostilities between them is still nonexistent. The Kamchatka Peninsula, along with other regions within the Northern Pacific perimeter, faces several critical environmental issues which are being addressed by various agencies. These include climate change, the protection of biodiversity, energy production, the regulated extraction of natural resources, marine conservation, indigenous culture preservation, and transparency within the regional and national governments.