The Smoking Mountain

The Smoking Mountain

The heat is always on at Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia. In East Africa’s Danakil (or Afar) Depression, three tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, allowing magma to rise to the surface and feed several active volcanoes. Erta Ale is located in this rift zone and is Ethiopia’s most active volcano.

The volcano is known as the “smoking mountain” and the “gateway to hell” in the Afar language. A lava lake in its summit crater, shown in the inset (above), has roiled since at least 1967 and possibly since 1906. The image was acquired by the OLI (Operational Land Imager) on Landsat 8 on November 27, 2023, and includes an infrared signal (red) produced by the heat of molten rock.

In a recent spate of activity, satellites detected thermal anomalies in the summit crater starting in mid-September 2023. According to reports from the Global Volcanism Program, anomalies observed over the ensuing weeks likely corresponded to eruptions from spatter cones and small lava flows within the crater. Much of scientists’ understanding of Erta Ale’s volcanism comes from satellite observations since the area is remote and largely inaccessible for field study.

While activity is common at the summit, lava flows also occur on other parts of the mountain. Notably, from January 2017 to March 2020, fissure eruptions in the southeast caldera produced a large volume of basaltic lava that poured down the volcano’s flanks. The flows covered approximately 30 square kilometers (12 square miles), some of which is visible in this image extending to the northeast and southwest.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Lindsey Doermann.

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