A Mountain of Fire
The Kawah Ijen volcano is a unique volcano located in the Ijen volcanic complex in East Java, Indonesia. It is famous for the spectacular dazzling blue flames that can be observed at its crater and running down its slopes at night. The volcano also hosts a lake at its top, the Kawah Ijen Crater Lake, with a volume of 1.3 billion cubic feet, is found holding turquoise-colored waters of a highly acidic composition. It is believed to be the world’s largest water body filled with highly concentrated hydrochloric acid. Scientists studying the lake have inferred that the hydrogen chloride gas emitted by the volcano upon reaction with water from the lake results in the formation of highly concentrated hydrochloric acid, with a pH approaching "0" (meaning it is almost purely acidic).
What Causes The Blue Flames?
In the beginning, before the scientific reports were out, there was a common belief that the volcano was emitting blue-colored lava instead of the yellow- to orange-colored lava exhaled by other volcanoes. However, upon investigation, scientists concluded that the blue-colored flames visible atop the Kawah Ijen volcano at night was actually burning sulphur. As the volcano spewed out large volumes of lava and sulphuric gases, the gases came in contact with oxygen in the air outside underwent immediate combustion, producing the blue-colored flames. Further, the high temperatures prevailing in the region and the high pressures with which the gases were emitted, catalyzed the entire process of combustion. Since the flames are blue in color, they are only visible in the dark background of the surroundings at nighttime.
Tourism and Media Coverage
The extensive media coverage of the Kawah Ijen volcano has encouraged a large footfall of tourists in the region. Tourists now hike all the way to the rim of the volcanic crate at night to enjoy the sightings of the blue flames emanating out of the crater. The volcano and its unique features have been the subject of television shows of several reputed media brands like National Geographic and BBC. The Human Planet episode of BBC, the 1991 IMAX documentary “Ring of Fire” and the 2005 Austrian-German documentary “Workingman’s Death” have also featured the Kawah Ijen volcano.
Controversial Sulfur Mining Practices
The sulfur exhaled by the Kawah Ijen volcano forms an important source of livelihood for the region’s inhabitants. As the sulphur cools down, it mixes with the molten lava and solidifies into volcanic rocks. Mining for these sulfur bearing rocks is an important economic activity here, as by working at night, guided by the blue light of the volcano, the miners are able to supplement their low daily income with money earned from selling sulphur rocks. The photographers studying these miners of the Kawah Ijen volcano have expressed shock at the way these miners expose themselves to the highly toxic volcanic gases during their mining activities. Health experts claim that these gases can induce breathing problems, chronic respiratory illnesses and lung defects when inhaled in large amounts for long periods of time. However, the poverty prevailing among the sulphur miners forces them to work in the volcano under the dangerous conditions without any protective gears. From the picture above, you can see the danger of carrying these baskets full of sulphur upon one's back up and down the craggy slopes.
Researchers studying the volcano and its surrounding habitat have commented on the dangers poses by the volcano to the locals inhabiting the region. The scientists believe that the highly acidic water of the crater lake of the Ijen volcano permeates through various passages into the streams, rivers and underground water stores of the area. This acidic water with dissolved toxic metals, is consumed by the population to meet their daily water needs and also used for irrigating their crop fields. A scientific report by the Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang, Central Java, mentions that locals inhabiting the area around the volcanic region suffer from bone and dental problems due to the use of well and river water polluted by the acidic water from the Ijen volcano’s crater lake.