The Lava Lakes of Erta Ale

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Sept. 10 2013 8:42 AM

The Lava Lakes of Erta Ale, Ethiopia's "Smoking Mountain"

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a new travel blog. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Located in the Danakil Depression (or Afar Depression) in the Afar Region of northeastern Ethiopia, Erta Ale is one of the driest, lowest, and hottest places on Earth. Temperatures during the year range from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 118 degrees Fahrenheit. The area is beset by drought, bereft of trees, and has little in the way of roads.

Known by the Afar as the "smoking mountain" and "the gateway to hell," Erta Ale is a 2,011-foot-high constantly active basaltic shield volcano. It is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanos in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanos with lava lakes. While there are only five known volcanos with lava lakes globally, Erta Ale often has two active lava lakes, making it a unique site.

Advertisement

Erta Ale was discovered in 1906, which also makes it the longest-known lava lake. For a lava lake to exist, the surface of the lake and the magma chamber below must form a constant convecting system, or the entire thing will cool and solidify.

Beneath the ground surrounding Erta Ale is an enormous pool of active magma. The lake goes through cycles and will cool, form a black layer on top, and then suddenly convect back into liquid lava. Occasionally, due to pressure, "fountains" of lava will form, spewing lava in 6- to 13-foot-high plumes.

The volcano itself has erupted in 1873, 1903, 1940, 1960, 1967, and 2005, when it killed hundreds of livestock and forced thousands to flee. In 2007 lava flows once again forced evacuation. Two people went missing and were presumably killed.

Despite the harsh conditions, danger of volcanic eruption, and extreme heat, Erta Ale has become something of a tourist destination recently. Whereas in 2002 the area was accessible only by helicopter, today adventure tourism groups take trips to the volcano lakes and it is now possible to drive within 4.3 miles of the volcano.

Angry volcanoes:

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Launching a Serious Run at Apple and Samsung

Television

Slim Pickings at the Network TV Bazaar

Three talented actresses in three terrible shows.

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Jurisprudence
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?