Volcanic Eruption Creates Deadly Acid Lake

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The 1996 eruption of Karymsky volcano was preceded by a magnitude-7.1 earthquake.
Mikhail Zelensky

Grandma's death by acid is a highlight of the 1997 camp classic "Dante's Peak." The disaster epic chronicles the race to save a small town from a deadly volcanic eruption.

A giant island appears suddenly, following a huge earthquake in Pakistan. Pretty wild, right? And now, the thing is emitting toxic, flammable gas.
National Institute of Oceanography

In the movie, volcanic gases quickly turn a placid lake into an acidic death trap as a family escapes burning-hot lava by boat, aided by a volcanologist played by Pierce Brosnan. Grandma sacrifices herself and jumps into the lake to push their dissolving aluminum boat the last few feet to safety.

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For a film that gets some eruption science terrifyingly right, the lake's radical transformation has always been a sticking point. Volcanic gases belching from the lake bottom can't acidify an entire lake in a matter of hours, debunkers have shown. However, extremely acidic fluids could dissolve Grandma's legs and kill her from shock, as well as eat holes in the boat.

Now, it turns out there is also some truth behind the fictional volcanic chemistry.

Real-life acid trip

In 1996, volcanic blasts at Karymsky Lake in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula created a toxic chemical soup in the formerly pristine lake, according to a study published Oct. 1 in Geophysical Research Letters. The eruption decimated the lake's ecosystem, killing off thousands of fish and trees.

The Kamchatka Peninsula is home to scores of steep-sided volcanoes, which line up like sentries along its eastern coast. Karymsky Lake nestles in the long-dormant Academy Nauk caldera, a hole in the Earth left behind when a massive eruption emptied out a magma chamber. Next door, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) north, rises Karymsky volcano, the most active volcano in Kamchatka. (Images: Journey to Kamchatka's Volcanoes)

Around midnight on Jan. 2, 1996, one day after a powerful earthquake, Karymsky volcano exploded, spewing ash and lava high into the air. Later that afternoon, the lake followed, with a strong underwater eruption. Eruptive pulses from the lake ejected columns of steam and ash into the air every five or six minutes for about 18 hours. (Scientists from the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology in Kamchatka watched from a safe distance, providing eyewitness accounts.)

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"There was around 30 to 40 million tons of pyroclastic material and juvenile material erupted into the air, and this material was saturated with acidic fluids," said Yuri Taran, a senior researcher at the Institute of Geophysics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the new study.

Much of the ejected material collapsed back into the lake, stewing into a fetid mix of sodium, sulfate, calcium and magnesium. When scientists reached the lake, they discovered the pH had dropped from 7.5 to 3.2, in the range of grapefruit juice and vinegar, and the water's color was yellow-brown.

"Before the eruption, the lake was absolutely clear and after it was like an acidic hot spring," Taran told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.