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.

“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.

The volcanoes here are not cone-shaped giant mountains which 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 opening of craters 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.

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

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.

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 from the lava lake opened a new fissure and huge amounts of lava covered the ground.

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

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, in 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 day-time, it is black, molten basalt with visible cracks of deep-red lava. Meanwhile, in 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 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!

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.

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

Erta Ale is included in the following article:

Lava lakes of the world
Lava lakes of the world in 2019
Lava lakes of the world in 2019 / Wondermondo / public domain
In October 2019 we have seven existing lava lakes on Earth. Three more existed for a longer time in the recent past. Besides this, since the year 2000 short-lived lava lakes and lava ponds existed in 11 more places. Wondermondo has listed them all in this article.


  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 on the map
[travelers-map height=320px this_post=true init_maxzoom=9]
Location, GPS coordinates: 13.6030 N 40.6634 E
Categories: Volcanoes, Lakes and streams
Values: Geology, Visual
Rating: 4 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Africa, Ethiopia, northern part of Afar Region, Erta Ale Range in Danakil Depression
Alternate names: Ertale, Irta’ale
Meaning in Afar language: “Smoking mountain”
Height: 613 m

Video of Erta Ale from drone

Dale Johnson, November 2017

Landmarks of Ethiopia

Jinbar Falls, Ethiopia
Jinbar Falls / Giustino, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Ethiopia is very interesting country with rich cultural and natural heritage. Highlights of Ethiopian heritage are its rock cut churches, ancient stelae and megaliths and places, where are found some of the oldest hominins and humans in the world.


Mount Cleveland, Aleut Islands
Mount Cleveland / NOAA Photo Library, / CC BY 2.0

This category includes the most unusual and interesting volcanoes of the world.

Over the last 10,000 years in some 1,500 places around the Earth through the crust of the planet has been emitted lava, ash and gases from the mantle of Earth. Each of these places could be considered to be an active volcano. Every year some 50 – 70 volcanoes are erupting, at any moment there are some 20 – 30 eruptions on-going.

Recommended books

Volcanoes of the World

This impressive scientific resource presents up-to-date information on ten thousand years of volcanic activity on Earth. In the decade and a half since the previous edition was published new studies have refined assessments of the ages of many volcanoes, and several thousand new eruptions have been documented.

Volcanoes: Global Perspectives

Volcanoes are essential elements in the delicate global balance of elemental forces that govern both the dynamic evolution of the Earth and the nature of Life itself. Without volcanic activity, life as we know it would not exist on our planet. Although beautiful to behold, volcanoes are also potentially destructive, and understanding their nature is critical to prevent major loss of life in the future.

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2 years ago

this helped me know facts

2 years ago

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