The terrifying beauty of an active volcano has lured travellers and woven legends for centuries. There’s nothing like the incandescent boom of erupting lava and the hiss and crackle of slithering molten rock to feel most alive. About 1,500 volcanoes are active – meaning that they’ve erupted in the last 10,000 years – from Erebus in Antarctica to Sangay in Ecuador. Read on for the world’s most turbulent craters.
Plumes of smoke during the day, and an intense, orange glow at night signal the presence of Kilauea (pronounced “Kil-uh-way-aa”), reputed to be the world’s most active volcano. This youngest volcano on the Hawaiian islands has been continuously spewing lava and ash since its most recent eruption in January 1983. Molten rock flows down subterranean lava tubes from Pu’u O’o vent – the site of the 1983 eruption – and at times, gushes over land towards the ocean, raising toxic fumes and shattering into black sand as it falls into the waves. The changing lava flow has claimed parts of the national highway, rainforest, and many homes and lives over the years; locals often leave sacred leis as offerings to the fiery goddess Pele. Kilauea also holds one of the world’s few persistent lava lakes at Halema‘uma‘u crater (believed to be the home of Pele), which has been bubbling for the past six years.
Europe’s largest active volcano first erupted about half a million years ago, awarding it the longest period of documented eruptions in the world. Currently 3,340m in height, Mount Etna arose in north-east Sicily, Italy from the rising magma created by the melting of the Eurasian plate as it sank towards the Earth’s belly. The many origin myths swirling about the ancient mountain call it the forge of Vulcan also known as Hephaestus, god of fire and metallurgy; the workshop of the Cyclops who made Zeus’ weapons; and the prison of the 100-headed monster Typhon. Several towns and villages pepper the slopes of Mount Etna, so concrete dams and explosives are often used to divert lava flows from eruptions at its summit and, more dangerously, from the flanks. In 2007, a 400m ash cloud temporarily shuttered Catania airport.
Piton de la Fournaise (“peak of the furnace”) has been spilling basaltic lava for over 5,30,000 years. It stands alongside the towering, extinct volcanic mountain Piton des Neiges (“Snow Peak”) in the French island of La Réunion. Although Piton de la Fournaise is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the eruptions in the caldera don’t cause much devastation as it is uninhabited. The tempestuous mountain is best visited in the morning before fog rolls in around mid-day. It can be accessed either by a helicopter ride or a hike into the caldera.
Known as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” Stromboli has been shooting incandescent fountains of lava, ash and volcanic rock for over 2,000 years. Perched on Stromboli island – the peak of a large underwater volcano – this Italian volcano’s short, intense explosions have lent the term “Strombolian.” In 2002, effusive eruptions induced a small tsunami that damaged some of the coastline, but for the most part, Stromboli offers safe and spectacular viewing.
Mount Yasur on Tanna Island, Vanuatu is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire that houses 75 per cent of the world’s active volcanoes. Yasur formed on the subduction zone at the boundary of the westward-bound Pacific plate and the eastward-moving Indo-Australian plate, and has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years. Its glowing beacon from mild (Vulcan) to violent, Strombolian eruptions offers relatively safe viewing. The volcano’s pyrotechnics drew Captain James Cook to the South Pacific island; although he was the first European to sight the cone, he was banned by local chiefs from reaching the crater. Yasur, which means “God” in the native language, is also believed to be the abode of John Frum, a shadowy American messiah that native followers believe will bring them wealth like the U.S. troops did in World War II.
Watch National Geographic’s “Volcano 101” video below.