Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

North Ossetia Disaster Was Avoidable

Hundreds of lives may have been saved if the Kolka glacier had been monitored.
By Alan Tskhurbayev

As the true scale of the glacier disaster that hit North Ossetia last week slowly becomes apparent, it’s emerged that the high death toll could have been avoided.


Locals believe as many as 300 people may have been killed - far higher than official estimates - when the Kalka glacier plunged 24 km down into the Genaldon Gorge on September 20.


Some believe proper monitoring of the glacier could have given prior warning of the impending cataclysm. The area has not been studied for more than a decade, after a dedicated team of glaciologists ran out of funds following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


The glacier, which sped down the mountains at around 150 km an hour, buried the village of Karmadon and adjacent holidaying areas under a 50 m layer of stones and ice. Local geologists estimate that the debris may comprise between 80 and 150 million tons of rock.


The material damage caused by the disaster runs to around 15-17 million US dollars, according to preliminary reports.


Counting the number of victims has proved more difficult. The bodies of ten people were discovered by the evening of September 25 but more than 100 are said to be missing. The latter include no fewer than nine deputies from North Ossetia's parliament and a large group of university staff.


A film team including the famous Russian actor and director Sergei Bodrov Jnr was working at the epicentre near Karmadon. Of the 26 people who were involved in filming that day, only two escaped. The fate of the rest, including Bodrov, is still unknown.


Locals say the actual number of those missing is far greater than the official estimates, as the ice stream overwhelmed recreation areas filled with weekend visitors.


Nearby villagers told how they heard a loud crackling sound, before they saw violent flashes against a black sky. A dark-coloured mass approached at a great speed, swallowing up everything in its path. Immediately after the disaster struck, many locals grabbed warm clothes and took refuge in the mountains for several days.


The presence of the film crew gave rise to rumours that the tragedy may have been caused by special effects. However, according to Vladislav Koliev, who was in charge of arranging accommodation for the team in Vladikavkaz, the group was only filming landscapes.


"Pyrotechnics are absolutely out of the question, as the film they were shooting had nothing to do with military themes," Koliev told IWPR.


Glaciers of this type can grow for years under heavy snowfalls. After the accumulation of ice has reached a critical point, there’s a real danger of it breaking up. "A slightest fluctuation resulting from a light earthquake, gunshots in the mountains or even a loud conversation can make the ice slide down,” said geography professor Boris Beroyev.


North Ossetia’s security service, the FSB, issued a statement refuting rumours of a battle in the mountains between units of the 58th army and Chechen fighters - which was rumoured to be the cause of the disaster.


Four days after the disaster, Bodrov’s film director father - also Sergei – and Russian emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Vladikavkaz to meet North Ossetian president Alexander Dzasokhov, before heading to the scene.


Surveying the devastation, Shoigu said, "I don't like to say banal things such as ‘hope dies last’, but the chances of finding anyone alive are minimal."


The minister said that search and rescue operations will be carried out in two stages. The first will last until the cold weather sets in, with the second following next spring. However, rescuers from the emergencies ministry say that no one could have survived under a layer of ice 20 to 150 m deep.


There is still some danger of further avalanches, Shoigu said, which is why efforts will soon be made to identify "isolation zones" for people to be evacuated to if necessary.


A group of mountaineers was sent to climb the remaining part of the glacier, which is hanging down at an angle of 70 degrees. The decision may be taken to carry out a "controlled descent" of the ice mass.


Izmail Kulayev, head of the geological surveillance department of North Ossetia, told IWPR that the glacier’s first movement was registered in 1885. Seventeen years later, heavy rains and an intense thaw caused it to slide over a distance of 12 km, causing a violent mudflow which wrecked the village of Genal and the Tmenikau resort, killing many people.


University professor of geography Boris Beroyev said that the scientists of North Ossetia have frequently spoken of the need to set up a research institute to study ice flow developments in mountainous areas. It is believed such a programme could have helped them forecast large-scale natural catastrophes such as the recent one, preventing loss of life.


The last time Kolka shifted was in 1969. While the glacier moved less than four km, residents of the adjacent village of Gizel were evacuated as a precaution.


Following this, a group of glaciologists was set up to monitor the glaciers of the North Caucasus. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unit broke up for lack of funding.


North Ossetia's neighbours in the North Caucasus were among the first to respond to reports of the avalanche and sent their rescuers to help. A group of specialists also arrived from the Georgian republic of Ajara, bringing one of the first cargoes of humanitarian aid.


Telegrams addressed to the president of the republic and expressing condolences to the families and friends of the victims have been pouring in from all over Russia. September 26 was declared a day of mourning in North Ossetia.


Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz. Anzhela Suanova is a correspondent with the newspaper Narody Kavkaza in North Ossetia.