February 29, 2024

The Towering Inferno: Mount Erebus’ Dramatic Emergence From the Antarctic Clouds

The Towering Inferno: Mount Erebus’ Dramatic Emergence From The Antarctic CloudsMount Erebus Breaks Through Annotated - The Towering Inferno: Mount Erebus’ Dramatic Emergence From The Antarctic Clouds

Satellite view of the summit crater of Mount Erebus on November 25, 2023, captured by the Operational Land Imager-2 on Landsat 9.

The fiery and icy upper reaches of the Antarctic volcano pierced through a canopy of clouds.

On a late spring day in 2023, the summit crater of Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano, emerged majestically above the clouds. Captured by Landsat 9’s Operational Land Imager-2 (OLI-2), this stunning view of the stratovolcano was taken on November 25.

Geographical and Geological Significance

Mount Erebus forms part of the Ross Island volcanoes, located off the coast of West Antarctica. Standing tall at 3,794 meters (12,450 feet) above sea level, this towering presence dominates the landscape near McMurdo Station, situated only 35 kilometers (22 miles) away. The volcanic activity in this region is attributed to the rift zone where extension has caused the Earth’s crust to thin, facilitating the ascent of magma through crustal faults to the surface.

Mount Erebus Breaks Through Detail - The Towering Inferno: Mount Erebus’ Dramatic Emergence From The Antarctic CloudsMount Erebus Breaks Through Detail - The Towering Inferno: Mount Erebus’ Dramatic Emergence From The Antarctic Clouds

Detailed view of the image above.

Understanding the Volcanic Phenomena

In the detailed view (above), the Landsat image includes the shortwave infrared signal (red) produced by heat from a lava lake in the summit crater. The lake has been active since at least 1972 and is one of only a few long-lived lava lakes on Earth. It constantly churns and occasionally spews bombs of molten rock in Strombolian eruptions. Geologists want to learn why an active lava lake has persisted here for so long. Recent research suggests one reason could be the magma’s low water content, which makes it less volatile as it approaches the surface.

Historical Context

Erebus was active prior to the emergence of this lava lake, including in 1841 when British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross first sighted it during his Antarctic exploration. Mount Erebus and neighboring Mount Terror were named for warships retrofitted for use in that expedition and numerous other polar voyages.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.