Mount Erebus – the southernmost active volcano

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Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus. / Johannes Zielcke, / BY NC-ND 2.0
If there is a large and active volcano in Antarctica, this should be something unusual. An Mount Erebus certainly is very unusual – it is one of the few volcanoes in the world with a constant lava lake in it.

Geological history

Mount Erebus is located above Erebus hotspot – a kind of “burner” through the Earth’s crust. As the continental plates move around, the “burner” burns through, creating a chain of volcanoes which become extinct as they “float” away from the hotspot – and new volcano emerges where before was just a plain land.

Crater of Mount Erebus
Crater of Mount Erebus. / jeaneeem, / BY NC-ND 2.0

Erebus started to form some 1.3 million years ago and now it rises 3,794 m tall above the sea. Volcano constitutes the main part of Ross Island which is the 6th highest island in the world. Island is connected to the mainland with an ice sheet which is stable enough to have a permanent airfield on it.

On the same Ross Island are three more volcanoes – all inactive: Mount Terror, Mount Bird, Mount Terra Nova.

Description of Mount Erebus

Mount Erebus is the most active volcano in Antarctica: it erupts continuously since its discovery in 1841.

It is also the southernmost active volcano on Earth and the second highest volcano in Antarctica after Mount Sidley – a dormant volcano which rises 4,181 – 4,285 m high.

At the summit of the volcano is some 500 by 600 m large and 110 m deep crater. It contains an inner crater which is some 250 m wide and 100 m deep and contains lava lake – one of the few such lakes in the world. This lava lake contains phonolitic lava – Mount Erebus is the only current volcano erupting this kind of lava in the world.

Mount Erebus craters
Mount Erebus craters. / NSF/Josh Landis, / public domain

Lava lake

If the weather lets see through the fumes, visitors have a possibility to admire the glow of this lake from the rim of the crater. The lava lake of Mount Erebus has existed since the discovery of the volcano (and, most likely, before this), but it has constantly changed.

Thus, during the 1970ies the lava lake was some 130 m long, oval. In 1984 – 1985 the volcanic activity increased and the glow of lava was visible from a distance of some 70 km. During this time most of the lava lake “froze” – solidified but volcanic bombs with a diameter up to 10 m were thrown up to 1.2 km far!

Lava lake of Mount Erebus, Antarctica
Lava lake of Mount Erebus / NASA, public domain.

Small lava lake with a diameter of some 15 m appeared in late 1985. In the late 1980ies, there were observed up to three smaller lava lakes.

Lava lake or several lakes persisted in the crater in 1990ies and in the 21st century. In 2010 – 2016 there were two lava lakes in the crater.

Other wonders of Mount Erebus

In the volcanic bombs of the unique phonolitic lava are forming so-called Erebus crystals – unusually large crystals of anorthoclase. These Erebus crystals can be found around the summit of the volcano. They are not especially beautiful – but this is a mineralogical rarity.

Another peculiarity of this volcano is ice towers on its slopes. These ice towers rise up to 12 m high and have been created by fumaroles which are exhausting warm gases and vapor. As it freezes, ice tower forms. These ice towers have wells in the middle where the gases escape. Similar ice towers form in volcanic areas elsewhere in Antarctica and other glaciers of the world.

Maybe the most interesting peculiarity of Mount Erebus is a unique ecosystem to the north, at Tramway Ridge. Here the heated soil is inhabited by a small ecosystem with mosses and microorganisms. Cyanobacteria here create a weird mat and under this mat has developed a habitat with archaea – microorganisms which seem to be unique to this place.

Discovery and research

Ross Island and Mount Erebus were discovered by Sir James Ross on January 27, 1841. Ross named the volcano after his ship HMS Erebus – a military ship. “Erebus” is a Greek deity of darkness – Brits considered this to be a fine name for military ship and… also a volcano!

Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus. / Eli Duke, / BY SA 2.0

Ross Island served as a base for early expeditions to Antarctica – this is the southernmost island to be reached by ship. Here is located the largest Antarctic settlement – McMurdo Station (United States) as well as Scott Base (New Zealand).

The volcano was first climbed in 1908 by a team of researchers of the Nimrod expedition (British Antarctic Expedition) led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The group of these brave climbers was led by Sir Edgeworth David, a geologist and the climb took five exhaustive days.

As the volcano is fairly easy to access (By Antarctic standards of accessibility), it has been much explored. Until 2016 there was even a dedicated Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory which was run by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (USA). Not too far from the summit, at the height of 3,400 m, there was a summer field camp. Around the volcano was created also a network of seismic stations.

References

  1. Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, New Mexico Tech. Accessed on April 22, 2019
  2. Erebud, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Global Volcanism Program. Accessed on April 22, 2019

Mount Erebus on the map

Location, GPS coordinates:77.5280 S 167.1616 E
Categories:Volcanoes, Lakes and streams, Rare natural materials, Geographical extremes
Values:Geology, Visual
Rating:4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Where is located?Antarctic and Sub-antarctic region, Antarctica, Ross Dependency, Ross Island
Height:3,794 m

Video of Mount Erebus


Jiri VonDrak, January 2014

Landmarks of Antarctica

Onyx River - the largest in Antarctica
Onyx River – the largest in Antarctica / P.Wright, US Geological Survey, public domain
Antarctica is unusual continent, little known to general people and comparatively little investigated. Numerous kinds of landmarks, which are common in all other continents of the world, do not exist here – but this is compensated by several kinds of landmarks unique to Antarctica.

Volcanoes

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 was emitted lava, ash, and gases from the mantle of Earth. Each of these places is an active volcano. Every year some 50 – 70 volcanoes are erupting, at any moment there are some 20 – 30 eruptions on-going.

Recommended books

Antarctica: Earth’s Own Ice World


In 2016, scientist Rosaly Lopes and artist Michael Carroll teamed up as fellows of the National Science Foundation to travel to Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano in Antarctica. The logistics of getting there and complex operations of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station echo the kinds of strategies that future explorers will undertake as they set up settlements on Mars and beyond. This exciting popular-level book explores the arduous environment of Antarctica and how it is similar to other icy worlds in the Solar System.

An Adventurer’s Guide to Antarctica and the Subantarctic Islands


This guidebook describes the continent’s natural and manmade edifices and weaves the history of human exploration into each location. Here are the beaches where barefoot sealers slaughtered fur seals and in turn exposed the pathos of the human heart. On Cape Evans in the Ross Sea Region, a lone hut stands. Inside, rough furnishings offer poignant glimpses into the explorers’ lives.

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