Satellite view of a volcanic pressure valve

By Phil Plait | October 14, 2010 10:35 am

The Earth is a writhing, seething cauldron of molten rock and metal. In some spots under the Earth, the pressure builds and builds, until something has to give, and KABLAM! You get a huge volcanic eruption.

On the other hand, sometimes the pressure just gets relieved nicely and steadily and politely, like in the Klyuchevskaya volcano in Kamchatka, Russia, as seen in this gorgeous Terra satellite image:


It’s a bit hard to tell here, but this is one teeny tiny part of a breathtakingly ginormous image that you can get by clicking the picture. Seriously, it’s 6000 x 8500 pixels.

And it’s stunning. This volcano, located in the far east side of Asia, erupts pretty steadily. That’s actually a good thing, given that first scenario above. There are actually four erupting volcanoes in this area; another one, Bezymianny, can be seen just below the big one. In the original huge image, you can barely see either of them, but in this close crop you can see the plumes from both blowing to the northeast. And if you look carefully, you can even see a glowing red line indicating lava flows on Klyuchevskaya right at the peak. In the full size image you can actually see two such flows.

When I was a kid I loved space and volcanoes and dinosaurs. I used to draw giant Apatosauri (though we called ‘em brontosauri back then) with big conic volcanoes in the background blowing out giant plumes. My scientific accuracy was probably somewhat dwarfed by my enthusiasm back then, but the cool thing is now, as a grown-up, I get to see pictures like this one! Maybe there are no dinosaurs in them, but there’s still something incredibly cool about looking down on a volcano. And you can see the shadow of the plumes on the ground, too!

People joke about living in the future, but c’mon: we get satellite pictures of erupting volcanoes in full color and high-resolution delivered right to computers in our homes.

I love the future. Which is good, because I’ll be spending the rest of my life there. You too.

Image credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

Related posts:

Volcano on volcano action
Tourist gets dramatic volcano plume snapshot
Plume and ash
The one-dimensional volcano

… or seriously, click the volcano tag under the pictures to see all the posts I’ve made about them!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Terra, volcano

Comments (47)

  1. Every time I hear about the volcanoes in russia, I keep thinking about the Siberian Flats and what they did to this planet back a few hundred million years ago.

    Beautiful picture though.

  2. David Gursky

    Check your vision Phil — the lava is on the LEFT side of the volcano, not the right…

  3. Tim

    Ahem….considering the function, should we be surprised that it takes the form of a giant sphincter?


  4. David (#2): I wrote “right at the peak” not “right of the peak”. My vision’s fine, how’s yours? :)

  5. If you’re interested in such things, I have a new post on some of the recent NASA Earth Observatory volcano images – another one has about 8 volcanoes littered down the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula:

  6. David Gursky

    Right in this case is ambiguous. Right as in near or right as in direction. :-D (We could call the FSM to arbitrate…)

  7. The Other Ian

    I’ve never seen the forms “apatosauri” and “brontosauri” used before. As Greek cognates, they look wrong to me in the same way that “octopi” is incorrect. I suggest “apatosauruses”.

  8. Sebastien

    Is it just me or the place is riddled with impact craters? Also, find the airfield.

  9. Joseph

    @Phil – depending on the geological formations in the area there may be fossils there. In fact I bet somewhere in the embigened image there is an area that does have fossils entombed in the rocks.

    So, in a way, you are looking at dinosaurs and volcanoes in the same picture.

  10. bandsaw

    To me, the volcano at the other end of the larger image is equally dramatic. You can see it erupted fairly recently and turned all the snow on one side into horrific mudflows. I’m glad I can watch it from this distance.

    Sebastien, those are not impact craters, those are volcanic craters. This area is covered in them. It’s part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

  11. Sion

    Phil, I hope your claim of molten rock didn’t refer to the mantle, which is, of course, solid and not molten.

  12. QuietDesperation

    FOR SALE: Klyuchevskaya volcano

    LOCATION (FOR THE MOMENT): Kamchatka, Russia

    DETAILS: Supervillain move-in-ready! Multilevel subterranean base powered by magma flow. Launch tubes. Extensive barracks for minions. Attractive yet practical steampunk theme. Large deck for evil gatherings can double as landing pad for evil airships. Pressure valve needs some minimal work.

    Hurry! This deal will NOT LAST LONG! Seriously.

    CONTACT: V. Putin @ Comrades Of Doom

  13. The Big Blue Frog

    I’m another one who drew the dinosaurs and volcanoes. In my defense, my kid’s book about dinosaurs had a tyrannosaurus on the front with a volcano behind him.

  14. Grand Lunar

    “People joke about living in the future, but c’mon: we get satellite pictures of erupting volcanoes in full color and high-resolution delivered right to computers in our homes.”

    Well put, Phil.
    I know people that want supertoys like flying cars (which I personally regard as flying death traps), thinking THAT is the future.

    Those people don’t appreciate the awesome technology we currently have.

    “The Earth is a writhing, seething cauldron of molten rock and metal.”

    Reminds me of a line from “Macbeth”. :)

  15. alfaniner

    I’ve only recently started thinking of volcanoes as the Earth’s zits.

  16. Nemesis

    Does that look like a sphincter to anyone but me?

  17. BJN

    I’m not sure a volcanologist would describe volcanoes as a pressure-relief mechanism. At least they wouldn’t say it with the implication that on large scales, the Earth’s pressure has to be relieved.

    Along spreading centers, volcanism is the rising part of convection of the plastic mantle. At hotspots, it’s a hot, buoyant plume from the mantle that cooks through a continent (e.g. Yellowstone) or that erupts to form volcanic arcs (e.g. Hawaii). At subduction zones like the Ring of Fire around the Pacific, there’s more “pressure” activity of the gaseous kind since relatively wet sediment is subducted into the mantle where it’s heated and rises, sometimes erupting at the surface but more often cooling below the surface to form massive granitic bodies (plutons). I’m far from an expert, but I’d bet that thermal “relief” would be a more accurate description of volcanism, at least at the large scale.

    Cool (err, hot) stuff indeed. I think “pressure” volcanism is best reserved to describe the soda-pop eruptions on Enceladus.

  18. Utakata

    I can’t help but hear the sounds of thundering raspberries that my father used to make in the waking hours of the morning on his way to the bathroom when looking at that. :(

    (Or the nonsense that climate denialists spew forth in the other article below this one. )

  19. Leo

    @ #17 It reminds me of the Mythbusters episode about lighting flatus.

  20. Nemesis

    I should have said “butt” me! hahahahaha

  21. No. 6

    “The Earth is a writhing, seething cauldron of molten rock and metal.”

    Reminds me of the line from Blazing Saddles.

  22. William S

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on how the horseshoe shaped formation near the center of the photo occurred. It is just to the left of what appears to be the second largest lake in the picture. As mentioned by several others who have posted here, the area is littered with impact craters and I wonder if post-impact natural erosion is not a factor. It appears to be too uniform to have been created by natural forces alone and there are no other structures nearby that have similar erosion patterns. Given the location…

  23. Ah, poor #2, your inner Professor Frink screwed you . . .


  24. David Gursky

    @21 I blame Drew’s cancer and still want arbitration from the FSM.

  25. tim

    I too, drew many pictures of dinosaurs and volcano. My last was when I handed it in as an assignment for school, and the teacher asked me why dinosaurs were seen with volcanos. I had no idea, though I’m sure I must’ve picked it up from somewhere.

  26. Steve Metzler

    Phil, Phil… Phil! If brontosaurus evolved into apatosaurus then why are there still bronto… oh, you say there *aren’t*! Oh nos! Phil, you’ve just disproved evolution by common descent :-

    Hey, please don’t tell the Discovery Institute about this. How much is it worth to you to, you know, keep schtum about this discovery?

  27. Steve Metzler

    I too, drew many pictures of dinosaurs and volcano. My last was when I handed it in as an assignment for school, and the teacher asked me why dinosaurs were seen with volcanos.

    tim, it’s OK. Really. Unlike dinosaurs and people, dinosaurs and volcanoes did in fact co-exist.

  28. bandsaw

    William S, That’s not an impact crater, it’s a collapsed volcano. The volcano erupts, builds a cone of lava. Then the hotspot shifts a bit, the molten core of the volcano settles back down (or leaks out a side vent). The top of the volcano collapses in. In the case of this one, it looks like that happened twice (the outer ring being older, the inner ring a half-hearted resurrection attempt). The rivers flooding through this area then eroded away one wall, leaving the horseshoe shape you see. You’ll see similar structures near Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta in California, and Mt. St. Helens also looks very similar.

  29. Jeff

    you are so correct,

    this is the more “POLITE” volcanic eruption I’ve ever seen.

    The more environments we image on earth and solar system, the more we see the astounding variety and complexity of phenomenon.

    A personal story: 30 years ago I started teaching with white chalk, and color chalk was considered a luxury you had to beg for. Overhead transparencies and slide projector had to be carefully reserved, and that stuff was a luxury too. Then some “pioneers” started wheeling portable computers and data projectors on carts into lecture hall in about 1995. Then the IT and media boys and girls started helping us by installing permanent data projectors and computers in the lecture rooms. Then, thank you bill Gates and boys, you made USING COMPUTERS EASY!!! with windows 98, what a concept ; and of course internet access. Now, I am actually projecting websites which update science knowledge everday, like this one and the near asteroid miss yesterday, and even have them do problem solving springboarding off this stuff.

    If you read above, you must appreciate how far education has come baby!!! and thanks for the Phils of the world who lend their expertise to the process. I mean, if all we had were a bunch of rehashed stories by hack staff writers with one day crash course in science writing them, they wouldn’t have the wonderful sophistication of this blog.

  30. Other Paul

    “The Earth is a writhing, seething cauldron of molten rock and metal.”

    Yeah, Grand Lunar – definitely Macbeth

    “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much lava, umm blood, in him? ”

    BTW – when I click on the pic to get the big image all I get is a page telling me there are errors in the image. Which, although an intriguing idea, is a bit disappointing.

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image. Thankyou Terra (satellite), Terra (Earth!) and the Bad Astronomer. :-)

    @15.Grand Lunar, #30 Jeff & the BA originally about “living in the future” now:

    Seconded / thirded by me. Agreed. :-)

    There’s so much we take for granted now that past generations would be amazed by. Of course, there are some things that haven’t worked out, future~wise, like I hoped & expected they would (people on the Moon and Mars, frequent available-to-many-space-travel, no more creationists around, personal jetpacks & household robots, etc ..) but on the whole, yeah. :-)

    @7. The Other Ian Says:

    I’ve never seen the forms “apatosauri” and “brontosauri” used before. As Greek cognates, they look wrong to me in the same way that “octopi” is incorrect. I suggest “apatosauruses”.

    “Octopi” is incorrect? Whaaa …!? Tell me it ain’t so, please!

    What about “Loti” (for the plural of the Lotus cars & flowers) as I’ve heard one former F1 commentator use?

  32. Joel

    @32. Messier Tidy Upper: “Octopi” is an iffy one. Most sources say it’s incorrect; the OED allows it, largely on the basis of widespread usage, but notes that it is technically incorrect and “Often objectionable”, preferring octopuses instead.

    The plural of lotus is definitely lotuses, though, not loti.

    (“Brontosauri” is out too.)

    *End Pedantry*

    As for the future thing, I was thinking that too recently. We can see images from space of distances and clarities that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. We’ve got a whacking great space station in permanent orbit which, whatever you think of it in terms of how resources could have been better allocated elsewhere, is still incredibly awesome. We have a computer in every house capable of doing things that would have cost billions and taken up a room just a short while ago – which give us access to all these amazing images, and data too, and all the por- um. Instant communication, that’ll do.

    And to top that, we’re looking at the possibility of the general public starting to have access to space. Sure, it’s well out of my price range now, but maybe not too far along the line…

    Yeah. It’s cool. And there’s so much more to come! I’m even starting to get hopeful I’ll see people reach mars in my lifetime again.

  33. Paul Hannah

    Am I the only one who wants this fantastic image in 3D?

  34. Jeffersonian

    living in the future?
    Not me. I totally live in the past.
    It’s comfortable here but I’m always behind (It gives me something to look forward to).

  35. Steve

    Am I the only one who thinks this looks like a giant anus?

  36. JB of Brisbane

    I was trying to think of an appropriate completion to the “In Soviet Russia…” meme to go with this, but I’m coming up blank. Anyone else wanna jump in? Or should I just give it a rest?
    And to Messier, “octopus” comes to us from Greek, and to my knowledge it is only Latin words ending in “us” that are pluralised with “i”.

  37. Johan Stuyts

    The volcanoes are awesome, but you forgot to mention all the other beautiful features of the image. Like the river and the surrounding swamp?, the mountain next to the river, and the hills and red stuff (vegetation?) below the mountain at the top. Fantastic image.

  38. Thomas

    @7 – The -us ending is a Latinate ending, transforming the Greek -saur into faux Latin, which would make me believe the -i ending to be correct.

    If you wanted to be really pedantic, you could insist on apatosaur instead of apatosaurus, which would make the plural apatosaurs (or apatosauroi if you wanted to be Grecian).

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Thomas – well that’s what ithought too. ;-)

    Would someone please explain why ‘octopi’ , ‘loti’, apat etc .. are considered incorrect then? Curious.

    Octopus comes from greek? Now that I should have guessed! ;-)

    @33. Joel : Thanks. :-)

  40. Bandsaw:

    You’re right that the craters in these images aren’t from impacts, but the mechanism that results in a horseshoe-shaped crater isn’t river erosion, it’s the result of a flank collapse. When subjected to the stresses of upwelling magma or other tectonic movement, the slopes of a stratovolcano may fail, creating a huge landslide, and a crater shaped like a “U.” The best documented of these is, of course, Mount St. Helens, where the initial stages of the eruption were even photographed:

    Speaking of which, The erupting volcano to the north is Shiveluch, and the eruption that left the big scar on the landscape to the south was in 1964. It was similar to, but about 1/3 the size of, St. Helens.

  41. Tom K.

    Shouldn’t we be worried that it is letting all the air out of our Globe? We will start to sink!
    I did think of Sasquatch at first, but this is a family show.

  42. Joel

    @41 Tom K.

    No, we need that air coming out, it’s what makes the Earth keep moving round the sun, whilst making “pphhhtppbttpbphh” noises.

  43. QuietDesperation

    No, we need that air coming out, it’s what makes the Earth keep moving round the sun, whilst making “pphhhtppbttpbphh” noises.

    Earth chooses: Phbbbt! attack!

    EARTH: Phbbbt!

    It’s not very effective.

    The Sun chooses: Coronal Mass Ejection


    It’s super effective!

    Earth burns to a cinder.

    Sun wins!

  44. Michael

    “And if you look carefully, you can even see a glowing red line indicating lava flows on Klyuchevskaya right at the peak. In the full size image you can actually see two such flows.”

    Shame on you, Phil. Any astronomer should know not to use normal-vision based assumptions in a false color image. That color of red is also found in the larger image on the white-capped hill near the center-right of the image, just to the edge of the (assumed) snowfield. That mound in clearly not volcanically active. The same color can also be found, in a rather rectangular shape, just below the right hand end of the river-like feature. Rectangles seem an unlikely shape for a lava flow, but a probable shape for a farmed field in a false-color image.

    More likely, the bright red color is from fast-growing vegetation or algae living in the snowfield melt-water generated by the heat of exiting gases.

  45. Anatexis

    @45 Michael,

    Seeing as red in this false-colour image represents infrared radiation, I’d say that interpreting two “red” stripes at the top of an erupting volcano as lava flows isn’t something to be ashamed of. Last time I checked, lava flows are hot and emit infrared radiation.

    The red in the rest of the image I would say is mostly vegetation, which, more strongly than green light, also doesn’t absorb infrared light. There’s also something that looks like an algal bloom in one of the lakes.

    Stunning picture. It’s my new desktop wallpaper.

  46. Joel

    @45. Michael: Well, the NASA website the image came from reckons it’s lava too.


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