About the Kurils

The Kuril Islands (Кури́льские острова́, Kuril'skie ostrova) in the Sakhalin Oblast region of the Russian Federation is a chain of over 50 major islands spanning about 1,300 km (700 miles) northeast from Hokkaidō, Japan, to Kamchatka, Russia, bordered by the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east.

The Kuril Islands are known in Japanese as the Chishima Islands (千島列島 / Chishima rettō, literally, Thousand Islands Archipelago), also known as the Kuriru Islands (クリル列島 / Kuriru rettō, literally, Kuril Archipelago). The name Kuril originates from the autonym of the aboriginal Ainu: "kur", meaning man. It may also be related to names for other islands that have traditionally been inhabited by the Ainu people, such as Kuyi or Kuye for Sakhalin and Kai for Hokkaidō (Wikipedia 2007).

The Kuril archipelago is an active volcanic island arc spanning the Okhotsk-Pacific boundary between the more terrestrial arcs of Japan and Kamchatka. The Kurils comprise 160 Quaternary terrestrial and 89 submarine volcanoes, built upon a Cretaceous to Neogene basement (Gorshkov 1970; Nemoto and Sasa 1960). Thirty-two of these volcanoes have erupted in the past 300 years (Ishizuka 2001). Along the Kuril trench and subduction zone, large earthquakes and tsunamis are common; the two most recent are the 1994 Shikotan event in the south (Yeh et al., 1995), and the 1952 great earthquake and tsunami in the north (Zayakin and Luchinina, 1987). The 1952 tsunami devastated communities in the northern Kurils with considerable loss of life (Zayakin and Luchinina 1987; Kaistrenko and Sedaeva1999). On the 15th of November, 2006 a massive Magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck just east of Dushnaya Bay, Simushir where Kuril Biocomplexity Project teams had been deployed just three months earlier (see all recent earthquake activity here). This earthquake was the largest seismic event world-wide since the devastating 2004 event near Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Kuril Islands vary in size from 5 to 3,200 km2 and range in isolation toward the center, and in climate from north to south. The northern and southern island groups tend to be larger than those in the central region. The northern and central islands are tundra covered, while the southern islands support mixed forest (spruce, larch) and grasses. In spite of their mid-latitude location, the Kuril Islands experience subpolar conditions in winter due to strong northwesterly winds that are established by the strength and position of the Siberian High and Aleutian Low (Leonov 1990, Shcherbina et al., 2004). Sea ice covers up to about one-third of the Sea of Okhotsk by winter's end and typically reaches the southern Kuril Islands from the west in the present climate. With partial ice-free ocean upwind, heavy snow is common from November to March. Summers are characterized by dense fog and mild southerly winds.

presentation of Kuril Island geology by Bre MacInnes (5/26/06)
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