Antarctic Lava Lake Huffs, Puffs Like Dozing Dragon


The coldest place on Earth is also one of the rare spots where a roiling lava lake offers a window into the heart of a volcano.

Scientists believe they've discovered the largest volcano on Earth.

At Erebus volcano in Antarctica, a long-lived lava lake puffs steam and launches lava bombs at scientists who scale its slopes, hoping to unravel the mysteries of how volcanoes work. (Lava bombs are flying blobs of molten rock.)

"We think lava lakes are really the top of a magma chamber, so by studying lava lakes we can see what's happening in the guts of the volcano," said Philip Kyle, a volcanologist at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, who has visited Erebus since the late 1960s.

Erebus has been continuously active since as early as the 1970s. For more than 40 years, researchers like Kyle have climbed its 12,450-foot-tall (3,794 meters) peak during the brief summer, installing a battery of monitoring equipment that transforms Erebus into one of the most intensely watched volcanoes in the world. (Gallery: Erebus Volcano's Amazing Lava Lake)

In the early decades, scientists gathered just a few precious weeks' worth of data each summer at Erebus. Now, despite the harsh climate, everything from earthquake monitors to infrared cameras perch on the volcano year-round. Instruments also track the swelling and sinking of the volcano's surface, snooping on magma pulsing underground; listen to infrasound (sound below the range of human hearing); and sniff gases escaping into the air.

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One of the remarkable discoveries to come from this long encampment is how regularly the lava lake huffs and churns, like a sleeping dragon. "I like to say Erebus is breathing, though I've been told off because Erebus can only breathe out," Kyle said.

Kyle's collaborator, Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge, first noticed the lake's reliable pattern several years ago, from measuring its never-ending gas plume. The total amount of gas — mostly an equal measure of carbon dioxide and water, with a little sulfur dioxide and hydrogen chloride — rises and falls in a 10-minute-long cycle. The composition of the gas also switches on the same cycle.

But the brief summer research season meant scientists weren't sure if the phenomenon occurred only on their watch. Perhaps the dragon awoke in winter.

Now, with year-round equipment, Erebus investigators have proved the cycle persists year-round, varying between five and 18 minutes since 2004, according to a study to be published June 2014 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

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