July 2, 2010 -- Last month, British volcano photographer and Discovery News guest blogger Richard Roscoe ventured to the southern Pacific Island state of Vanuatu to get spectacular images of Yasur volcano, just as it was starting to boil over. The following is his account of photographing its eruption while dodging red-hot lava bombs, ash clouds, and volcanic lightning:
At times, dense ash clouds could be seen billowing out of one or both of the volcano's two adjoining craters. Some eruptions were accompanied by an earsplitting series of shock waves, and volcanic bombs were frequently hurled out of the crater onto the nearby rim and flanks of the volcano (below).
In one case a large bomb was ejected at least 500 meters (over 1,600 feet) high and impacted the rim only 5 meters (16 feet) away from me. It is always important to scan the sky for bombs during powerful eruptions and the bomb was spotted long before it landed (below), allowing evasive action.
On another occasion a dense hail of volcanic bombs from the dangerous northern crater impacted the rim only a short distance away. Most of the bombs weighed many pounds, and the obligatory helmet would have provided little protection from these.
At night the rim was an absolute no-go area; many of the bombs were not glowing and thus invisible in the dark. Staying there after dark would have been like playing Russian Roulette.
During the day the rim remained dangerous, but taking all possible precautions it was possible to get some amazing images of thick erupting ash clouds full of volcanic bombs and with volcanic lightning in them (see video).
On rare occasions when gases and ash briefly cleared from the craters, it was even possible to see the onset of these eruptions from the vents at the base of the crater. This was like looking right down the barrel of a gun -- bombs can come shooting out at up to 250 meters per second (559 miles per hour). But it was an amazing spectacle as the eruptions at times resembled a kind of gray hedgehog rising out of a sandpit.
Yasur volcano is actually a major tourist attraction on Vanuatu since it has been persistently active (generally at lower levels) for hundreds of years. Visitors were still using the viewpoint near the south crater in spite of official restrictions. Even this slightly safer location, set back a little from the main craters, received numerous bomb impacts during a particularly explosive phase one night.
Indeed, in the past there have been 3 fatalities and several more cases of severe injuries at Yasur as a direct result of volcanic bombs.