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Erta Ale

Erta Ale lava lake, Ethiopia
Erta Ale lava lake / , Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

WorldBlue  In short

The longest living lava lake in the world is found in the crater of Erta Ale – a very remote volcano in Ethiopia. Visitors to this place tell that this is an unforgettable sight – but coming here is hard and could be very dangerous.

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GPS coordinates
13.6030 N 40.6634 E
Location, address
Africa, Ethiopia, northern part of Afar Region, Erta Ale Range in Danakil Depression
Alternate names
Ertale, Irta’ale
Meaning in Afar language
“Smoking mountain”
613 m

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

“Smoking mountain”

Erta Ale – the most active volcano in Ethiopia – has formed over the East African Rift system. Here the crust of Earth is spreading: literally, the Earth is opening here and magma is close to the surface.

Erta Ale caldera, 2008. Lava lake is in the nearest crater.
Erta Ale caldera, 2008. Lava lake is in the nearest crater. / filippo_jean, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The volcanoes here are not cone-shaped giant mountains that from time to time explode, killing all around them. Erta Ale is a typical basaltic shield volcano with very gentle slopes. This mountain is some 50 km wide and rises approximately 700 meters above the Danakil Depression. The caldera of Erta Ale is complex, approximately 1.7 km long and 0.6 km wide, with several crater openings in it.

Most active are two of these craters – one in the north and one in the south. The famous lava lake is in the southern crater, although sometimes lava lake has been reported also in the northern crater.

Eruptions of Erta Ale

Due to its remote location, Erta Ale has been seldom visited by scientists and we know little about its activity in the past, but there are reports about eruptions in 1873, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1940, and 1960. It is very likely that there were eruptions also in between – or maybe the eruption has continued all the time.

Pele's Hair - thin formations of basaltic lava, Erta Ale.
Pele’s Hair – thin formations of basaltic lava, Erta Ale. Yes, this is stone. / Ji Elle, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The current eruption started in 1967 and has not stopped since then. Since this time has existed the lava lake, which sometimes overflows the southern rim. There open also cracks in other locations and lava pours out: thus in January 2017 some 7 kilometers south of the lava lake opened a new fissure and huge amounts of lava covered the ground.

Eruptions of such basaltic volcanoes are comparatively silent but nevertheless, dangerous. Basaltic lava could flow quite fast and the gentle slopes of the volcano may lead to unexpected turns of lava flows.

Even if Erta Ale is located in a sparsely populated area, its eruptions may create havoc in local communities. Thus, on 25th September 2005 eruption forced thousands of people to evacuate and killed livestock. Another eruption in August 2007 again forced the evacuation.

Erta Ale, eruption
Erta Ale, eruption. / Ji Elle, Wikimedia Commons / Free Art License

Lava lakes

Lakes of lava are very rare on Earth – and Erta Ale has one of the best ones and nowhere else has it existed that long as here. It is known that lava lake in the southern crater exists since 1967 but it is highly likely that it existed here well before this. There have been reports also about another lava lake in the northern crater in earlier times.

The lava lake is circular, some 50 meters in diameter. In the daytime, it is black, molten basalt with visible cracks of deep-red lava. Meanwhile, at the night it turns out that the whole surface of the lake is emitting a quite strong glow. The sight of the lake is fascinating – lava is constantly changing.

Sometimes the level of lava rises and the lake spills over its rims. At such times the glow of the lava in the night is seen far away from the summit – this is an unusual spectacle of the forces of nature!

Tourists at the rim of Erta Ale crater
Tourists at the rim of Erta Ale crater, 2018 / A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons / Free Art License

Dangerous tourism

This area is one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable locations and travel to the volcano is dangerous and rather difficult. This is further complicated by the unrest of local people – there have been cases when tourists and scientists have been attacked and killed. Now the tourist groups are accompanied by a military escort.

Nevertheless, Erta Ale has a constant flow of tourists, uniting this trip with the visit to one more unique natural landmark – the colorful Dallol hot springs and geysers.

  1. Erta Ale volcano, Volcano Discovery. Accessed on February 7, 2019
  2. Fissure Eruptions on Erta Ale, NASA Earth Observatory. Accessed on February 7, 2019
Erta Ale is included in the following article:

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5 years ago

this helped me know facts

4 years ago

Is it impossible to see the lava in the lake? So many negative feedback from last year. By the way great article

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