Smoldering Japanese Volcano Seen From Space

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Feb. 2 2013 8:00 AM

A Monster Rises from the Sea in Japan

Photo from space of the Sakurajima volcano in Japan
ISS-eye view of the Sakurajima volcano, smoldering off the coast of Japan. Click to hephaestenate.

Image credit: NASA

When I was a kid (and yes, fine, even now) I loved Japanese monster movies. Godzilla, Ghidorah (my favorite, because c’mon, three heads), Gamera…they made it, I watched it. Saturday morning monster movies were the best thing of my week.

Back then I was too young to ponder on the exegesis of these movies. It was enough that giant monsters came out of the Sea of Japan and stomped around. But now, sometimes, I wonder why these creatures were so popular in Japan. And then I see a picture like the one above, taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station, and I have to think this had some effect on the culture.

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It shows the Kagoshima Bay on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Dominating the shot is the Sakurajima volcano, a stratovolcano over 1100 meters (3600 feet) high. There are several things to note here. One is that the entire volcanic shield is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across. The second is that it used to be an island, but an eruption in 1914—the most powerful Japan would endure in the 20th Century— actually grew the volcano enough that it met with the mainland to the southeast, converting it from an island to a peninsula.

And third, it’s surrounded by several relatively decent-sized cities. Kagoshima has around 700,000 inhabitants, for example, and is only 12 kilometers (7 miles) away to the west.

Zoomed out shot of the volcano
Wider-field view of the volcano, showing the surrounded—and heavily inhabited—region.

Image credit: NASA

In the picture from the ISS, you can see a plume of ash and water vapor rising from the summit, blowing south. Once it gets high enough, winds blow it abruptly east. Volcanologists keep a close eye on the volcano; it’s been active continuously since 1955, and it’s had several larger episodes in the past few years.

With real monsters looming in the waters of Japan, is it any wonder they would make fictional ones as well?

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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