Ques­tions & An­swers

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In the east­ern end of In­done­sia’s is­land of Java, the Kawah Ijen vol­cano (which com­prises the Ijen crater and the crater lake) rises 9,183 feet into the sky. The peak is part of the Ijen stra­to­vol­cano com­plex, and all around nox­ious gases bil­low up from the harsh ter­rain. Through­out the past few mil­len­nia, enor­mous erup­tions have pro­duced a sprawl­ing land­scape of craters that stretches on for more than 45 miles. And that’s not all. With­out in­ter­rup­tion, the vol­cano spews out tons of sul­fur to the sur­face from cracks in the rock (fu­maroles)— and the gas is 1,100°F. The sul­fur re­acts with oxy­gen in the air and burns. The por­tion of sul­fur fumes that con­denses surges down the moun­tain­side in the form of a steam­ing lu­mi­nous blue river. This burn­ing river of liq­uid sul­fur even­tu­ally flows right into the crater lake of Kawah Ijen. This 2,950-foot-long, 1,970-foot-wide, and 656-foot-deep basin is rec­og­nized by ex­perts for con­tain­ing the largest lake of acid in the world. The ph value of the bub­bling lake is 0.2— which is even more acidic than bat­tery acid. In or­der to pro­tect sur­round­ing land from this toxic mix, in 1921 en­gi­neers con­structed a huge lock on the rim of the crater that pre­vents un­con­trolled out­flow of the seething sul­furous so­lu­tion. Spe­cial fea­ture: The lock was made of blocks of pure sul­fur, as no other ma­te­rial could with­stand the cor­ro­sive fluid. Nowa­days work­ers col­lect sul­fur from Kawah Ijen: Vol­canic gases are chan­neled through a se­ries of ce­ramic pipes, al­low­ing the sul­fur to con­dense. When the runoff cools it is bro­ken into pieces and car­ried away.

CAN A RIVER SPIT OUT FIRE?

Not only does a spec­tac­u­lar burn­ing river of sul­fur flow from Kawah Ijen, the erup­tion is also ac­com­pa­nied by a fire­works dis­play. And it’s quite un­pre­dictable: With­out warn­ing, 16-foot-high pil­lars of flames can shoot out of the blue river with ex­plo­sive force.

WHAT MAKES THE LAVA BLUE?

The dis­charged sul­fur is so hot (up to 1,100°F) that it re­acts with the oxy­gen in the air and in the pro­cess is ig­nited. The re­sult is that the sul­fur be­gins to burn with its char­ac­ter­is­tic blue flame.

HOW DOES A VOL­CANO SIM­U­LATE LAVA?

The blue river does not ac­tu­ally con­sist of lava in the strict sense— i.e., molten rock. In­stead, sul­fur fumes that have con­densed into liq­uid sul­fur flow down the moun­tain above Kawah Ijen’s crater lake.

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