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The Sciences

Surprise from the Lava Lake at Antarctica's Erebus



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The lava lake at Antarctica's Erebus, seen in December 2011. Image: Clive Oppenheimer / Volcanofiles. Lava lakes are a relatively rare volcanic features -- there are only a handful of active ones on the planet. Kilauea (with two), Ambrym, Villarrica, Nyiragongo, Erta'Ale, a fairly new, possibly ephemeral lake at Tolbachik and probably the most remote lava lake of them all, Erebus in Antarctica. The Erebus lava lake as been a persistent feature on the volcano for decades (if not longer). However, it's remote location means it is normally monitored by satellite unless conditions allow for a team to reach the summit of the volcano from McMurdo Station (see above). As the southern hemisphere begins to head into fall, just such an opportunity came last week, so geologists from McMurdo set off to view the lava lake. What they found took everyone by surprise (including me). It has long been thought that life arose around volcano features like active vents and thermal features -- we've seen clear documentation of all sorts of life around black smokers around Antarctica and even bacteria living in very hot vents in places like the Yellowstone caldera. However, life in a place like Erebus has never been documented before. Dr. Julian Bashir from the US Antarctic Survey said it best: "as we descended the slope towards the Erebus lava lake, we were all struck by the strange sounds that were emanating from the crater. The haze of steam and volcanic gases finally lifted as the wind shifted some and much to our amazement, we could see something actually moving around on the lava lake!" The team was only able to take a few quick shots of before conditions worsened, but if this sighting proves to be true, our understanding of how life arose on our planet -- and others in the solar system -- could be changed forever.

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