Staring down an active volcano's throat

Contributed by
Jun 28, 2011
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I have seen some amazing volcano pictures in my time, but this one just released by NASA is way, way up on the list of pure, freaking, awesome:

[Click to hephaestenate.]

That spectacular image is from the Earth Observing-1 satellite, and shows the Nabro volcano in Eritrea, a country bordering the Red Sea on the horn of Africa. The volcano has been erupting for a couple of weeks, but its isolated location has made it difficult to get observations from the ground. The best views have been from satellites like EO-1.

This picture, taken on June 24, is false color; red is actually near-infrared, showing the intense heat generated by the lava in the caldera and flowing off to the northwest (upper left). The blue cloud is likely water vapor, and additional clouds are from gases escaping from the cooling lava. The caldera crater is obvious, and to give you a sense of the scale of this beast is about 6 km (3.6 miles) across.

Another shot, taken by NASA's Terra satellite, shows the volcano on June 19th in the thermal infrared, much deeper in the IR than the previous shot. This truly shows heat; the white flow to the upper left is the lava seen in the first picture. Ironically, the expanding plume of water vapor absorbs the heat from the active caldera below it, so it appears black. If the vapor weren't there, that part of the picture would be intensely bright. The purple haze is the volcano's ash plume.

Images like this help scientists understand volcanoes better, of course, but have real human impact. Acquired in near-real time, they can help predict eruptions as well as see where dangerous gases and outflows might occur. This kind of science saves lives, for real and for sure. I'm glad there are good people doing it. Credits: NASA/EO-1/Robert Simmon; NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon



I love these satellite views of volcanoes from space, and I've collected quite a few into a gallery slideshow. Click the thumbnail picture to get a bigger picture and more information, and scroll through the gallery using the left and right arrows.]