'Blue lava' photos are not what they seem — here's why

Two viral photos on X (formerly Twitter), described as blue molten rock erupting from an Ethiopian volcano, have been scientifically debunked.
Sade Agard
Two images showing what was described as a 'blue lava' phenomenon are scientifically explained.
Two images showing what was described as a 'blue lava' phenomenon are scientifically explained.

Olivier Grunewald 

In the age of social media, captivating images can spread like wildfire, tempting thousands of viewers within seconds. 

However, a recent viral sensation on X (formerly Twitter) serves as a reminder that not everything you see is as it seems, especially when it comes to the world of science. 

Two photographs, which collectively garnered over 183,000 views (at the time of writing), described as showing vibrant, blue molten rock erupting from a volcano in Ethiopia, have been scientifically debunked.

What is 'blue lava,' scientifically?

Although the images themselves are genuine, they do not depict the phenomenon they were captioned to portray. Contrary to the popular belief that these snapshots captured "blue lava," the blue coloration was not due to molten rock. 

Instead, the material that appeared to be erupting with cerulean intensity was ignited gas, engulfed in flames, according to Snopes, which describes itself as a fact-checking website. 

"These blue flames are [created] by sulfuric gas combustion," said the original photographer, Olivier Grunewald, who took the photos in 2014.

The fiery spectacle can be seen at select sites where volcanic gases come into contact with open flames, creating a mesmerizing visual display. 

Moreover, it was revealed that one of the images was taken in Indonesia at the renowned Kawah Ijen volcano, an extraordinary geological feature that has been emitting blue flames for centuries. 

The other photo, supposedly captured in Ethiopia, depicted the Dallol hydrothermal site— which is not a volcano— nestled within the Danakil Depression.

Kawah Ijen's enduring blue flames, a rarity worldwide, have captivated scientists and adventurers alike. On the other hand, the azure flames witnessed at the Dallol hydrothermal site manifest only under specific conditions.

Hydrothermal sites vs. volcanoes

Hydrothermal sites are unique geological locations where heated water interacts with rocks and minerals on the Earth's surface, releasing various dissolved substances. 

Despite the association with volcanic regions, hydrothermal activity can occur in diverse geological contexts, not exclusive to volcanic landscapes.

One of the most famous examples of a hydrothermal site is the Yellowstone National Park in the United States, best known for its geysers and hot springs.

For instance, Old Faithful is one of the most notable geysers in the park, known for its regular eruptions that shoot water and steam high into the air. 

'Blue lava' photos are not what they seem — here's why
Aerial image of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

The Grand Prismatic Spring is another iconic feature, characterized by its stunning colors due to microbial mats that thrive in the mineral-rich, hot water.

The hydrothermal activity in the park is not directly linked to volcanic activity, even though it's situated atop a supervolcano.

Simply put, Yellowstone's hydrothermal features result from the park's location above the Yellowstone Caldera — a massive volcanic system

The caldera's heat source contributes to hydrothermal activity. Still, the primary cause is the interaction between groundwater and the heat from the Earth's interior.

In summary, while the viral post on X accurately featured genuine photographs, the claim that they depicted "blue lava" from a single Ethiopian volcano was misconstrued. 

The images, instead, portrayed the captivating dance of blue flames arising from ignited volcanic gases. The distinctive blue hue resulted from the combustion of sulfuric gas, an awe-inspiring display seen at select volcanic sites.

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