Volcanoes With Blue Fire Not a Myth

On the island-nation of Indonesia stands several volcanoes, but there is one that does not glow orange or red, but a unique blue color, adding a strange phenomenon to the pile of facts about these fiery giants. Kawah Ijen, a volcano on Java, the larger half of the country of Indonesia, glows blue. This bright-blue fire is not magma flowing down the sides, but light from combusting sulfuric gases. These vapors arise from cracks in the mountain at high pressure and temperature, which can reach 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. These gases ignite when they touch the air, shooting flames sometimes 16 feet high into the air.

Some of the gases compress into liquid sulfur and continue to burn as they flow down the sides, making it look like gushing lava. Olivier Grunewald, a photographer from Paris, has been snapping photos of this unusual occurrence for several years. Of these photos, Cynthia Werner, a research geologist at the Alaskan Volcano Observatory reported that she has never “seen this much sulfur flowing at a volcano.” The burning continues day and night, but the blue glow can only be seen during the day. The blue fire can also be seen at the base of the column of ash from erupting mountains.

Werner says that it is fairly common for there to be molten sulfur near hot vents, since the mineral has a somewhat low heating point (239 degrees Fahrenheit), and the temperatures of the hot vents are often far greater. Similar rivers of heat and gas have occurred in Yellowstone National Park when heat from the fires liquefied the sulfur near the hydrothermal or heat vent; black lines mark past flows.

Blue fire was first expressed in Italy on the southern slope of Mount Vesuvius and on an island called Vulcano in ancient times. Not much more is known about the initial sightings of this spectacular spectacle.

Although the blue fire is not a myth, there are many fascinating tales about volcanoes as people attempted to sort out these earth-beasts, most of which stretch back to antiquity. The very word “volcano” comes from the Latin word Volcanus or Vulcan, which was also the Roman god of fire. The Romans used this word first for Mt. Etna, the forge where they believed Vulcan worked. The ancient Greeks also believed in the power and sanctity of these flaming giants. They held that Hephaestus, the god of fire, resided under Mt. Etna and Prometheus, the Titan god, stole fire from Hephaestus and gave it to humans.

The Aztecs in Mexico and the citizens of Nicaragua thought that gods lived in lakes created from volcanoes hundreds of years ago and sacrificed lovely young women to them. In the Middle Ages many believed that volcanoes led, like doorways, into the mysterious, blazing underworld. There is also the popular myth of the sunk-city of Atlantis. This story may be rooted in Santorini, a Greek island which collapsed partly into the ocean during the Bronze Age when a large volcano erupted.

The Hawaiians worshipped Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire, whom they believed lived in the bowl of the Kilauea volcano. They say that she has anger issues and hurls lava at anyone who crosses her. Several people have returned lava samples they acquired from the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park because of bad luck they attest to Pele. Over 80 percent of the earth’s shell is originally volcanic, and there are more than 500 active volcanoes in the world today, making it clear why people have always been awed by volcanoes, be it blue fire or red, and have always desired to separate myth from fact.

By Rachel Fike


National Geographic

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