In his new book, Earth on Fire, photographer and geologist Bernhard Edmaier wanted to show more than just the traditional pyrotechnics of volcano eruptions. The crater fields surrounding the Marsabit Volcano show how dramatically volcanoes can shape the landscape. More than 200 craters appeared 500,000 years ago when the volcano became active after a long dormant period. They are all part of Marsabit, a shallow-sloped volcano classified as a shield volcano, which rises 3,000 feet above the Chalbi Desert.
Edmaier has spent more than 15 years photographing volcanoes and other landscapes that have been transformed by natural forces. This image shows a pyroclastic flow, in which hot gas and rock cascade down the side of a volcano. The rocks can reach speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. In 1997, a large pyroclastic flow on the Soufriere Hills Volcano killed 23 people.
Because of Edmaier’s interest in the Earth’s crust, it was inevitable that he would get interested in volcanoes, “the most fascinating natural power,” he says via e-mail. He chose this image of the Erta Ale lava lake for the cover of his book. The red lines are cracks in the surface of the hardened skin that covers the molten lava of the lake. Although the skin is slightly cooler than the lava below it, its temperature is still hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit.
Edmaier and his crew spent an entire day in the area surrounding this mud geyser in Indonesia. Standing 50 feet away, so as to not sink into the gray mud, he was able to capture only a few shots of this massive bubble exploding. Bubbles can be as much as 30 feet wide, and release a cloud of carbon dioxide and mineral water when they explode. Locals collect this water, boil it down into a sweet salt and sell it.
In February 1998, Edmaier took this shot of a strombolian eruption (named for the Italian volcano Stromboli), in which a volcano shoots ash and lava into the air. The southeast crater of Etna erupted every few minutes for two years from 1996 to 1998, with lava explosions reaching 100 feet high. Edmaier and his crew stood too far away to feel the heat from the eruption, but they could hear the detonations, which sounded like cannon fire.
While flying above the volcanic desert in the center of the Icelandic highlands in a Cessna plane, Edmaier and his team came across this fluorescent green spot. The bright color comes from green moss that has taken over a hill in the center of the desert, and the red spots are land rich in iron oxide. This desert is located in the north of Mydralsjokull, the fourth largest of Iceland’s 13 major glaciers.
Erta Ale is one of the few volcanoes to have a continuous supply of lava in its crater. Lava lakes provide a glimpse into what the Earth’s surface might have looked like 4.5 billion years ago when the new planet was covered with magma. When photographing something so dynamic, Edmaier is more nervous about missing the perfect shot than about the power of the lake.
Edmaier took the image of this incredibly blue lake from a helicopter flying above Troitsky Crater, one of six craters on the ridge of Maly Semiachik. Such intense colors are characteristic of volcanic acid lakes, Edmaier says. Sulfuric vapors rise from the lake bed and react with water, turning into sulfuric acid.
Because he had already photographed Ship Rock from the ground, Edmaier decided to take a shot from above and capture the long shadow from the nearly 1800-foot-tall rock. Twenty-seven million years ago, Ship Rock was a volcano, and when it became inactive, magma cooled and solidified inside the volcano's cone. After the rest of the volcano eroded away, the harder magma remained and is what constitutes Ship Rock.
Bacteria produce the vivid colors in the Grand Prismatic Spring. Heat-loving bacteria that hold various pigments gather around the edge and turn it orange and brown. The colors can be even more intense in reality than on the print, Edmaier says. The water in the spring is 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most of Edmaier’s photographs in Earth on Fire are aerial, but this image was taken from the ground. At dusk on a cloudy day, Edmaier captured the continuously flowing lava from the Puu Oo flue on the side of the Kilauea volcano. The lava started flowing in 1983 and reached the Pacific coast in 1987, where it has extended the coastline by almost a square mile.
Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, is covered in ice. The heat from eruptions causes the ice cap to melt and create mudslides. In 1877, an eruption caused mudslides as far as 60 miles away. Since 1758, the volcano has erupted about 50 times.
Earth on Fire was published in December 2009 by Phaidon Press.