By Phil Plait | February 13, 2011 12:08 pm

I don’t post every volcano image that passes by, but there are a few that catch my eye for some reason or another. Like this one, the Ubinas volcano in Peru:

[Click to hephaestenate.]

Wow. Even though I know the power and fury of these mighty beasts, they are just so simply lovely when seen from space! This one — snapped by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite — looks like it’s been sculpted out of clay, but in fact is Peru’s most active volcano (in 2006 an eruption causes quite a stir for nearby towns), so the summit and surrounding areas are covered in fresh lava. There are no trees, no plants; just barren, alien rock. The whole region for kilometers around looks like another planet.

The last eruption was just last year, explaining the fresh look to it. You can see a small collapse funnel in it, though "small" is relative, it’s 200 meters deep. I also noticed that there is a summit collapse to the south, which is a feature of many stratovolcanoes. Part of the cone collapses and there can be sideways explosions, or pyroclastic flows (floods of searing hot ash) blasting horizontally. That southern break in the caldera leads to a canyon, which in turn (as can be seen in the high-res version of the image) leads to what looks like a huge rift on the right. As beautiful as it is from space, that’s basically the last place I’d like to be standing if this guy decides to throw a hissy fit.

This area is a subduction zone; the Nazca Pacific tectonic plate is sliding under the South American plate. Where this happens on Earth there are volcanoes (this one is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire) and earthquakes; the monster magnitude 8.8 Chilean earthquake last year was triggered by the subducting plate in fact.

Studying volcanoes means understanding tectonics better, and that means understanding earthquakes better, and that means saving thousands of lives and perhaps billions of dollars. And that’s a fine, fine idea.

Image credit: Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the NASA EO-1 team.

Related posts:

Mt. Etna erupts! (includes gallery of awesome volcanoes from space)
Volcano study in red
Fire and ice
Sunrise eruption

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: EO-1, Peru, Ubinas, volcano

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