False color image of Saunders Island and the lava lake within Mt. Michael.
Image: Landsat 8/BAS

Satellite images have confirmed the presence of a persistent lava lake within the crater of Mount Michael—an active volcano located on a remote island in the Southern Ocean.

Despite frequently appearing in films and video games, lava lakes are actually quite rare as far as geological features go. Of the approximately 1,500 potentially active terrestrial volcanoes on Earth, only eight feature a persistent lake of lava, the new one included. A research team from the British Antarctic survey and University College London confirmed the presence of lava lake using satellite data collected over the past three decades. Details of the discovery were published in the latest edition of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.


Mount Michael’s lava pool is as wide as two football fields, and its temperature peaks at nearly 1,280 degrees Celsius ( 2,335 degrees Fahrenheit).

Satellite images from the 1990s pointed to a persistent lava lake, as evidenced by thermal anomalies and signs of magma pouring out from the crater. But the poor resolution of these images made it impossible to confirm. The remote location of this volcano on Saunders Island didn’t help, making up-close observations difficult. This island is located among Britain’s South Sandwich Islands some 1,550 kilometers (963 miles) east of the Falkland Islands.

Mt. Michael.
Image: Pete Bucktrout (British Antarctic Survey).

“Mount Michael is a volcano on a remote island in the Southern Ocean,” said study lead author Danielle Gray from University College London in a press release. “It is extremely difficult to access, and without high-resolution satellite imagery it would have been very challenging to learn more about this amazing geological feature.”


For the new study, the BAS researchers used data collected by the Landsat, Sentinel-2, and ASTER satellites from 2003 to 2018, along with historical data dating back to 1989. As the authors stated in the new paper, “Persistent volcanic plumes and eruptions were identified throughout the thirty-year period studied.”

Image: Landsat 8/BAS

The high-resolution imagery revealed a lava lake measuring between 90 to 215 meters in diameter, and molten lava temperatures ranging from 989 to 1,279 degrees Celsius (1,812 to 2,334 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We are delighted to have discovered such a remarkable geological feature in the British Overseas Territory,” said BAS geologist and study co-author Alex Burton-Johnson. “Identifying the lava lake has improved our understanding of the volcanic activity and hazard on this remote island, and tells us more about these rare features, and finally, it has helped us develop techniques to monitor volcanoes from space.”


And in just case you were curious, the other seven volcanoes with persistent lava lakes around the world as as follows: Nyiragongo Volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Erta Ale Volcano in Ethiopia, Mount Erebus in Antarctica, Mount Yasur Vanuatu in Kilauea, Hawaii, Ambrym in Vanuatu, and Masaya in Nicaragua.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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