Kawah Ijen Volcano is a name that will make you fall in love with a deadly force of nature so much that you will literally want to take a dip into its molten brew of toxic chemicals burning at high temperature. Sitting in Indonesia’s East Java, the Kawah Ijen is an active volcano, which is a part of a volcano complex (yeah, multiple volcanoes). However, this particular volcano which boasts a caldera of the shape of a cauldron is pretty unusual.
It spews out not lava but lava-like river of fire which has a surreal electric blue color. The color is so magnificent that you will actually want to jump right into it. But before you do so, you should know that jumping into it will mean only one thing – death!
So, what does Kawah Ijen Volcano spews out?
Nice question! It is basic chemistry and the substance that flows out is no lava but sulfur. Oliver Grunewald – a photographer from Paris spent many years documenting the volcano. He said to National Geographic that the blue color is actually a river of fire caused by combustion of sulfuric gases.
He explained that the gasses trapped inside the volcano manage to escape out at extremely high pressure and of course high temperature. Just how hot? The temperature of the gasses can reach as high as 600 degrees Celsius or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the type of temperature that is good enough to burn humans to ashes within moments.
According to Grunewald, these gases when come out from the trapped interiors come in direct contact with air. This long awaited mating of air and trapped gases leads to ignition of the gases that results in massive flames that can reach as high as 5 meters or 16 feet in air.
The photographer explained that some of the gases that escape through the cracks actually condense and turn into liquid sulfur and then flow down the stratovolcano but still continue to burn and appears to be a river of blue fire, which may websites incorrectly claim as blue lava.
Interestingly, Grunewald didn’t make use of any special camera filters to make the images blue. They are natural. He explained to Nat Geo that the burning of sulfur takes place throughout the day but in broad daylight, the blue color cannot be seen. It becomes visible only during nights.
Comments from Cynthia Werner on Kawah Ijen Volcano
Research geologist, Cynthia Werner, who works with U.S. Geological Survey at Alaska Volcano Observatory stated that the photographs taken by Oliver Grunewald depict unusual levels of sulfur flowing out of any volcano. According to her, similar fire rivers were created by Yellowstone National Park forest fires because the heat from the fire melted the sulfur that was present near the hydrothermal vents in the area.
Werner explains that molten sulfur near volcanic fumaroles or hot vents is pretty common because sulfur has a melting point of just 115 degrees Celsius or 239 degrees Fahrenheit and that the temperature of the volcanic fumaroles is way higher than that temperature.
Talking of Kawah Ijen Volcano’s crater lake, Werner said that lake is extremely acidic because hydrochloride gas that was emitted by the volcano eventually reacted with the water creating concentrated hydrochloric acid or HCL which has a pH level near to zero.
The extreme acidity and super high concentrations of HCL in the lake makes the water of the lake look green. The crater lake has a volume of 36 million cubic meters.
Gas masks for visitors but not for sulfur miners at Kawah Ijen Volcano
U.S. Geological Survey’s geologists John Pallister said that a mining company has identified an active vent and installed ceramic pipes on it. The purpose of the pipes is to ensure that the sulfur gas goes through those pipes along the slopes. As they pass through the pipes, the gas cools and condenses into liquid sulfur, which eventually drips out of the pipes and finally gets deposited in form of sulfur mats. These mats are then broken down by miners who carry the chunks on their backs.
The problem is that the area is full of very harmful acidic gases which no one can breathe for long. The miners working there have a very low daily wage of 25 US cents for every pound, which translates into 600 Indonesian Rupiah for every pound. The workers carry about 220 pounds a day. The money they earn is not sufficient for them to get gas masks.
Visitors and researchers who visit the place use gas masks and often leave those masks behind for the miners. However, the miners are so poor that they don’t even have enough money to change the filters of those masks, which eventually become useless. Many miners actually use wet cloths as filter.
Oliver Grunewald reported that he always uses a gas mask while photographic the surreal images of the Kawah Ijen Volcano and its magical blue lava-like fire river.