There are 1,500 potentially active volcanoes on Earth, but lava lakes are much rarer. In fact, until recently, there were only seven known persistent lava lakes in the world. Scientists in the United Kingdom have discovered an eighth lava lake which is located inside of the active volcano Mount Michael which sits on the Sounders Island in the sub-Antarctic South Sandwich Islands.
While Mount Michael has been active for nearly 200 years, studying the volcano is pretty much impossible since the island is so remote, as well as the extremely challenging environment. “The island has been visited on numerous occasions, but no one has ever climbed the mountain,” stated geospatial analyst Peter Fretwell who is from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
He explained the challenging environment to BBC, “If you look at the imagery you can see why: the peak is surrounded by a huge snow-mushroom, extremely soft snow with an icing-sugar-like consistency, probably caused by the continual venting of steam by the volcano.” Researchers can’t walk on that type of snow, so they would have to dig through it, which would be extremely dangerous since it’s an active volcano. Pictures of the volcano and the lava lake can be seen here.
In the 1990s, satellites noticed thermal anomalies at Mount Michael, but they weren’t consistent with magma that overflowed from the volcano, and instead suggested that there was a lava lake hidden there. For comparison, lava pools are only temporary during times of volcanic eruptions, but lava lakes can last long after the eruption – sometimes up to 100 years.
The lava lake underneath Mount Michael is approximately 110 meters wide with the temperatures of the molten lava reaching as hot as 2,334 degrees Fahrenheit.
BAS geologist Alex Burton-Johnson explained how incredible this extremely rare discovery is, “Identifying the lava lake has improved our understanding of the volcanic activity and hazard on this remote island, and tells us more about these rare features,” adding, “And finally, it has helped us develop techniques to monitor volcanoes from space.” Their findings have been posted in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.