Mount Erebus – the southernmost active volcano

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

Geological history

Mount Erebus has formed 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. These volcanoes become extinct as they “float” away from the hotspot. Consequently, new volcanoes emerge in places where before was just a plain land.

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

The formation of Erebus started some 1.3 million years ago. Since then the volcano has reached a height of 3,794 m above the sea. Thanks to this giant mountain the Ross Island is the 6th highest island in the world. An ice sheet connects the island to the mainland. This ice is stable enough to have a permanent airfield on it.

On the same Ross Island are three more volcanoes: Mount Terror, Mount Bird, Mount Terra Nova. None of them is active.

Description of Mount Erebus

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

Erebus is also the southernmost active volcano on Earth and the second-highest volcano in Antarctica. The highest is Mount Sidley – a dormant volcano that 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. In this crater is one more – inner crater which is some 250 m wide and 100 m deep. In this inner crater is lava lake – one of the few such lakes in the world. It is filled with phonolitic lava. In fact, Mount Erebus is the only volcano in the world which erupts this kind of lava currently.

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

Lava lake

If the weather lets see through the fumes, visitors can 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 and had oval shape. Then, 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. Nevertheless, Erebus threw volcanic bombs with a diameter up to 10 m 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. Then, in the late 1980ies, researchers observed up to three smaller lava lakes.

Lava lake or several lakes existed in the crater in the 1990ies and in the 21st century. In 2010 – 2016 volcano formed two lava lakes.

Other wonders of Mount Erebus

In the volcanic bombs of the unique phonolitic lava have formed so-called Erebus crystals – unusually large crystals of anorthoclase. Visitors can find them around the summit of the volcano. Although these crystals are not especially beautiful they are a mineralogical rarity.

Other peculiarities of this volcano are up to 12 m high ice towers. These natural wonders were created by fumaroles – natural exhausts of warm gases and vapor. Vapor freezes in the Antarctic climate, gradually building the ice tower around the fumarole. In the middle of this tower is a hole – well and gases escape through the upper end of the tower. Volcanic fumaroles have made similar ice towers in several more locations around the world.

The volcanic heat of Mount Erebus has created also a unique ecosystem to the north from its summit, at Tramway Ridge. Here in the heated soil live mosses and microorganisms, over millennia cyanobacteria have created a weird mat. Under this mat has developed a habitat with archaea. These microorganisms most likely are unique to Tramway Ridge.

Discovery and research

Sir James Ross discovered Ross Island and Mount Erebus on January 27, 1841. He named the volcano after his ship HMS Erebus – a military ship. “Erebus” is a Greek deity of darkness and 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

As Ross Island is the southernmost island to be reached by ship, it served as a base for early expeditions to Antarctica. And, up to this day here is 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 the Nimrod expedition (British Antarctic Expedition). The expedition was led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the leader of these brave climbers was Sir Edgeworth David. They climbed for five exhaustive days.

As the volcano is fairly easy to access (By Antarctic standards), it has been much explored. Thus, until 2016 the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (USA) had here Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory. They created a summer field camp not too far from the summit, at the height of 3,400 m. Also, around the volcano was a network of seismic stations.

Mount Erebus 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.

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. General people know little about it and researchers have investigated it less than other continents. Many kinds of landmarks, which are common in all other continents of the world, do not exist here. In turn, 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

Wondersmondo has included in this category the most unusual and interesting volcanoes of the world.

Sometimes and in some places from the mantle of Earth are emitted lava, ash, and gases. Over the last 10,000 years, this happened in some 1,500 places around the Earth. Each of these places is an active volcano. Every year some 50 – 70 volcanoes are erupting and at any moment some 20 – 30 eruptions are 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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