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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Verdant volcano in a silvery sea

By Phil Plait

I am endlessly fascinated by volcanoes -- their power, the science behind them, and of course their terrible beauty. I've stood on a few (though never an active one -- but that'll happen someday!) and they are among the most amazing geological features on our planet.

In the past few years, we've started getting incredible high-resolution pictures of volcanoes from space, and they never cease to amaze me. One I saw recently really got to me: the south Pacific volcano Tinakula, located over 2000 km northeast of Australia:

Ye. Gads. [Click to hephaestenate.]

This shot was taken by the Earth Observing-1 satellite, and shows the volcanic island in the ocean. The colors are stunning: the deep green of the vegetation on the volcanic slope, and the bizarre silvery color of the ocean. This image is actually natural color; the silver is due to the way the sunlight is reflecting and glinting off the choppy water.

Tinakula is sporadically active, and you can see the plume of steam (probably with some ash mixed in) blowing out. You can also see the shadows on the water; the sunlight is coming from the right.

This is a sparsely populated region, and observations of the volcano are pretty rare. But from space, everything on the surface of the Earth is visible at some point. And while you can't keep a constant eye on such things, even the occasional shot like this helps scientists understand what's going on below the surface. This helps us understand volcanoes, of course, but also adds to the knowledge database of geologists, vulcanologists, and seismologists. And given the number of people who live near active volcanoes, this knowledge saves lives. It really is that simple: the better we understand the world -- the Universe -- around us, the better off we are.

Image credit: NASA/Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (Earth Observatory)

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.]

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