Staring down an active volcano's throat

By Phil Plait | June 28, 2011 6:02 am

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.]


CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (27)

  1. RwFlynn

    I never quite realized how useful this kind of imaging could be to this kind of science. Super interesting. Thanks, Phil!

  2. That second Nabro volcano photo from the Terra satellite doesn’t look like Earth. Looks more like a Jovian moon or something.

  3. gopher65

    How do you pronounce Eritrea? Is it “Air-i-tree-a” (where the I sounds like the I in “it”) or is it “a-rit-ree-a”?

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    This :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eritrea

    has a link to pronunciation of sorts along with other info, Eritrea~wise.

  5. Nigel Depledge

    @ gopher65 (3) -
    Try “eh-rit-ray-a”.

  6. Ooooooo! The top pic shows Madame Pele’s fiery fist reaching out to smite someone!

    Can’t pronounce Eritrea? That’s a smitin’!

  7. QuietDesperation

    Huh. That looks a bit like the secret supervillain volcano base I was building for my retirement and… (squints) NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

  8. Pete Jackson

    Kamchatka: land of zits!

  9. katwagner

    Whoa! Top photo is scary as hell! I mean really, that tongue of flaming hot red makes me not want to go there.

  10. fish

    Very cool pictures, but I’m doubtful that the smoke is just water vapor. The last picture shows the smoke is black/gray color, generally water vapor is white. From the IR perspective I guess is doesn’t matter as the smoke will hide the IR readings below it, but think think there is more there than just water.

  11. I wondered when you were going to post pictures when I read about the eruption the other day. Imagine that they thought that thing was inactive :-)

  12. If we truly cared about the Earth and all that lived in it, if we truly wanted to save all the little children, we would end this catastrophe by tossing Enviro-whiners into the caldera, by the thousands. If that does not fix it, then thousands more. After all, is that not their strategy for ending the Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming, Climate Change… with the sacrifice of billions of humans?

    Sacrifices, sacrifices, mankind’s making sacrifices to its false gods. The proof of their existence is their silence. More sacrifices!

  13. Volcanoes have always fascinated me. I live just North of Vancouver, BC, and we are surrounded by numerous dormant volcanoes. The entire landscape has been formed through volcanic processes, and when you drive to Whistler, there are many areas along the road where you can see basalt columns. I often wonder, if one day, I will awake to one of these peaks erupting.

  14. Steve Metzler

    Begone, Uncle Al #12. Don’t feed the trolls.

  15. Jeffersonian

    The ones that millions of people live next to are most recognizable and at the top of that list is Fuji, followed by the over-20 million people that live under the still-erupting Popocatapetl and its neighbor Iztaccihuatl.

    There are also several highly visible ones in Ecuador, seen by millions daily: Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe (the only place precisely on the Equator that’s under snow).

    The 2 most recognizable the US are Hood & Rainier (and Baker though it’s probably more a common view for people in Canada), probably followed by Adams. St. Helens is less visible/dominant from population centers and not as distinguishable as it was half a century ago (and Honolulu essentially is on one).

  16. The Yorkshire Sceptic a.k.a. Cassandra

    “See Naples and die.” Vesuvius is long overdue, and you can’t out-run a pyrochlastic flow no matter what the car ads would have you believe! :-(

  17. Nick

    Man those are very awesome pictures of a volcano

  18. Robert Carnegie

    On the BBC it sounds like:

    Err, to make a mistake.
    It, the impersonal pronoun.
    RAY, a beam of sunlight, is where the stress is.
    Ah, an exclamation expressing pleasure, pain, sympathy, etc, according to the intonation of the speaker.

    I assume that it sucks to be near this volcano but that it isn’t near any rich people or airports, or we’d have heard the news and seen pictures sooner. At least someone would have gone to see. This all fits my general impression of Eritrea as “mainly famines, and rather pointless warfare.” So how much of a contribution is the volcano making to the general “sucks to be poor”-ity of Planet Earth? How many deaths so far? Suffocations? Crops destroyed? And am I really, honestly, going to care one hour from now?

    Granted, most days you’re showing us a galaxy blowing up, or falling into a black hole or something, which is almost certainly not what any sapient beings possibly living there wanted to experience. But the volcano is a thing on an understandable scale, and, theoretically, you could go there. (In practice, you may not be welcomed.)

  19. Jackson

    Phil, you should also check out the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of the Earth at http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/ there is a lot of amazing imagery over there. Plus the creativity of some of the astronauts is really amazing.

  20. Phil: Thanks for the kind words and the link. I’d like to point out that the false-color image is a composite of shortwave-infrared (2.1 micrometers), near-infrared, and green wavelengths of light. It wouldn’t be glowing nearly so much in purely near IR.

    fish: There’s no “smoke” at all–volcanoes emit ash, water vapor, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and other gases, but no smoke. The black blob in the thermal-infrared image is indeed primarily water vapor. It’s cold (and therefore dark) because it’s reaching high altitude. The purple-colored smear leading from the volcano to the lower left is made up of ash and gas that’s lower and thinner than the central plume, so it’s semi-translucent in those wavelengths.

    When you look at the thermal image also keep in mind that I added topographic shading: it was taken at night at wavelengths that aren’t reflected by the Earth’s surface.

    We’ll have another pair of images from June 28 that show some changes in the lava flow, and a greatly reduced plume, posted soon.

  21. The BA has now updated this – click on my name for the link. :-)

    Or see this blog’s article titled :

    UPDATE: more amazing Nabro volcano images

    Posted on June 30th, 2011 6:20 PM

    Under the Tags: EO-1, Eritrea, Nabro, volcano
    by Phil Plait in Cool stuff, Pretty pictures | 9 comments – which will hopefully rise to 10 comments soon as I have one awaiting moderation there noting a doco (BBC- screened on SBS TV OZ) on the region – ‘The Hottest place on Earth’ which explored the Erta Ale volcano and Afar tribal region. :-)

  22. tamara

    How come there’s not been any coverage of the Puyehue Cordon-Caulle eruption in Chile? I happen to live in a town that has been covered by the ashes. It erupted on June 4th, and it is still erupting. NASA has made amazing images of the plume, and they even compiled a video of near-hourly photos. Look it up, you’ll see the images are unbelievable.

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