Magazine article Geographical

Sleeping Giants: Volcanoes Are One of Nature's Most Spectacular Sights and Make for Superb Photography, as Long as You Take the Correct Safety Precautions First

Magazine article Geographical

Sleeping Giants: Volcanoes Are One of Nature's Most Spectacular Sights and Make for Superb Photography, as Long as You Take the Correct Safety Precautions First

Article excerpt

Volcanoes are spectacular and destructive in equal measure, which makes them both an exciting and highly dangerous subject for the camera. For that reason, the first advice any photographer should note is identifying the type of volcano that looms large in the landscape ahead.

There are three different types: active, dormant and extinct. An extinct volcano is defined by vulcanologists as one that hasn't erupted in at least 10,000 years, while a dormant volcano may not have erupted for hundreds, even thousands of years, but is expected to do so at any time.

It may seem like stating the obvious, but active volcanoes are those that erupt continuously, such as Mt Etna in Sicily. But even Japan's iconic Mt Fuji, which last erupted in 1707, is regarded as active because of the frequency of other seismic activity--mostly tremors and earthquakes--in the area. Both Etna and Fuji-san attract hordes of tourists and climbers each year. In fact, Fuji-san is the single most popular tourist site in Japan--more than 200,000 people climb to the 3,776 metre summit every year.

By contrast, Mt Etna is in an almost continuous state of eruption and frequently lights up the night sky with glowing red lava flows down its flanks. Although one of the world's most active volcanoes, it also attracts thousands of visitors every year and supports a tourist infrastructure that belies its volatility.

There are two ski resorts on Etna with a cable car and chair lifts, and a road within walking distance of the southern crater. There is even a Round-Etna narrow-gauge railway, built in the 1890s, which runs around the mountain!


The accessibility to Etna serves to demonstrate how approachable volcanoes can be and it is no surprise perhaps, given the picture potential of an erupting Mt Etna, to see why active volcanoes are more popular with photographers than the less risky dormant variety.

But even among active volcanoes, the nature of the eruptions can vary significantly and influence the type of photograph to be taken. For instance, Calbuco in southern Chile is an example of a Vulcanian-type eruption, in which a dense cloud of ash-laden gas explodes and rises high above the peak.

Calbuco erupted on 22 April without warning and a 20km exclusion zone was enforced, thereby limiting photography to distant views. However, the images were still spectacular, especially at night when viewed from Puerto Montt, a coastal city of nearly 200,000 inhabitants, only 30km away. At night, the bright orange sprays of magma became more visible through the ash cloud, with the lights of the city reflected in the sea making a colourful foreground for the camera.

By contrast, Etna is an example of a Strombolian eruption (named after Stromboli, another Italian volcano), whereby massive clots of molten lava explode from the summit crater to form fiery luminous arcs through the sky. For the photographer, this makes for a more impressive image, particularly when framed close-up. Furthermore, when these fiery clots land on the flanks of the volcano they combine to form bright glowing streams of viscous lava.


Of course, a volcanic region is one of the most volatile and life-threatening environments on the planet with unstable ground, intra-crater tremors and earthquakes, molten projectiles and extreme temperatures.

Just as dangerous are the toxic gases that rise from even the most innocuous looking fissure. Typical volcanic emissions include sulphur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide. In short, no visit to an active volcanic region should be attempted without extensive research into the area and an authorised guide.

Etna is one of the few active volcanoes on Earth where close-up photography is possible. Another is Kilauea, on big island Hawaii, which is the most active volcano on Earth. Kilauea is a different type of volcano to Etna or Calbuco, producing fissure-type eruptions whereby very fluid lava spurts from a fissure on the volcano's rift zone before flowing down the slope to form a lava field. …

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