The Mountain of Blue Fire

Nature has a way of continually surprising us and inspiring awe within us, and it seems there are just as many fantastical wonders to be found in the natural world as there are in that of the supernatural. Here among nature’s great mysteries and incredible spectacles are all manner of spectacular displays of power, destruction, and beauty, often all of these combined. One of the weirdest, and yet at the same time most undeniably gorgeous and breathtaking is to be found at a volcano in Indonesia, which is the source of one of the most amazing natural light shows on earth. It is a place where the raw power of nature, its fury, and its most magnificent beauty come together to weave into a spellbinding display that is hard to really put into words.
Lying within the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java, Indonesia, and nestled within a 20 km wide caldera known as the Ijen caldera, is a group of active stratovolcanoes known as the Ijen volcano complex, which reaches its highest point with the 2799 m high Gunung Merapi stratovolcano. Although the caldera itself is home to numerous picturesque coffee plantations, waterfalls, and quaint hot springs, the areas of the volcano complex resemble the face of another distant planet with its jagged rocky landscape, craggy cones, craters, ridges, and sulphur spewing vents littering its desolate facade. To the west of the larger Gunung Merapi stratovolcano, the name of which translates to the ominous sounding “mountain of fire,” is another volcano called Kawah Ijen, with a crater that has a diameter of 722 meters (2,369 ft), a depth of 200 meters (660 ft.), and a total area of 0.41 square kilometers (0.16 sq. mi).
The Kawah Ijen crater
The Kawah Ijen crater
At first there is not much to particularly differentiate Kawah Ijien from the rest of the rough and rugged surrounding moonscape, but there are several features here that make it stand out. One is a 1 km wide crater lake with striking turquoise water which from a distance may seem quite charming and inviting, but in actuality is the world’s largest highly acidic lake, with sulfuric acid laced water that can dissolve an aluminum can within 30 minutes and which is known to belch forth deadly gases from time to time without warning, causing birds to suddenly fall from the sky or even killing humans who get too close. The lake is always wreathed in a thick smog of dangerous, noxious fumes that mar its otherwise otherworldly beauty.
Kawah Ijien is also notable for its incredible amount of sulfur, with which the atmosphere is so thickly laden that it causes irritation and inflammation of the eyes for those who come here and in most cases necessitates wearing a gas mask. These vast sulfur reserves are the target of a huge mining operation in the bottom of the crater. The mining is highly dangerous, perilous work, with miners braving temperatures surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, noxious gagging fumes, unstable rocky footing, potential eruptions from the active volcano slumbering below their feet, lethal volcanic gases which can bubble up at any moment from the bowels of the earth, and very few safety measures in place due to the largely freelance nature of the work. The men don’t even wear gas masks as they toil away choking on hazardous fumes next to smoking, active volcanic vents.
Sulfur mining at Kawah Ijien
Sulfur mining at Kawah Ijien
It is also back breaking, intensive physical labor. Miners use pipes to drain out deep red liquid molten sulfur and then allow it to cool into chunks of yellow, solid sulfur, after which they laboriously break the chunks down by hand into smaller pieces and load up baskets with up to 90 kg. (200 lbs) of the stuff. The heavy baskets are then carried by hand up to the top of the crater through a gas choked narrow trail and a grueling 3 km hike (1.86 miles) to a sugar refinery in Paltuding Valley, where the sulfur is weighed and the miners paid according to how much they have brought, with a miner normally making around a meager $13 a day. The sulfur will typically end up being used for vulcanizing rubber and bleaching sugar. A typical miner, many of which are mere children, will make 2 of these harrowing trips a day, and this exhausting, unforgiving labor, along with the highly dangerous conditions, nonexistent safety measures, and the constant unprotected inhalation of toxic gases and fumes, give the typical sulfur miner here a life expectancy of not much more than 30 years of age.
As deadly and dangerous as all of this sulfur is, it is this sulfur which is responsible for one of the most surreal and spellbinding natural spectacles in the world. As this huge amount of sulfur comes forth from the earth and reaches the surface, at high pressures and temperatures of more than 600°C (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit), it hits the lava and oxygen in the air and is ignited. This causes it to spectacularly blaze to life in stunning blue flames that can be up to 5 meters (16 feet) high and which cast the mountainside in an otherworldly blue glow. This already astounding natural light show is made even more dreamlike when portions of the sulfur condense to liquid and continue to burn as it flows along, creating rivers of blue flame that meander down the mountain in a breathtaking display of nature’s power and beauty. The flames are always present here, but the blue violet fire is only visible at night, when it appears most nights of the year. Although such burning sulfur can be seen to a limited extent in other places around the world, such as Yellowstone National Park, nowhere else is it as incredibly dramatic or on as grand a scale as it is at Kawah Ijien, and this is by far the largest such display in the world.
Although the phenomenon has been well known in the area for a long time, with the miners long even working at night by the light of these incandescent flowing flames, it has mostly been brought to the attention of the outside world due to the stunning photographs of the display taken by French photographer Olivier Grunewald. Grunewald first heard of Kawah Ijien’s awe inspiring fiery blue rivers through a photo he saw taken by the president of Geneva’s Society for Volcanology, Régis Etienne, in 2008, which shows the silhouette of a child miner illuminated by the ghostly glow of the blue flames. The haunting image stayed with him, and Grunewald became fascinated, almost obsessed, with documenting the miners working among the flows of blue fire spilling down the mountain. He would later join forces with Etienne to brave the harsh conditions of the crater and shoot a documentary on the phenomena and the plight of the miners over the course of 6 trips and 30 nights. The documentary was shot under grueling, inhospitable conditions, during which several cameras were corroded by acid and the team was constantly plagued by the harmful fumes despite wearing gas masks, and even after shooting was completed it took three weeks to get rid of the thick smell of sulfur clinging to them. Grunewald told National Geographic magazine:
The main problem was the acidic gases that whirled constantly in the crater. The night seriously increased the difficulty as well, because it became almost impossible to see when dense gases arrived—at times, we were stuck in gas plumes for over an hour without being able to see our hands.
The results speak for themselves. During the course of making the documentary, Grunewald was able to catch by far the most striking, surreal, and beautiful images ever taken of this bizarre phenomenon, as well as to illustrate the hash life of the sulfur miners who live and die among the enchanting flames. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this magnificent and mesmerizing  gallery of pictures speaks volumes. It is hard not to be enthralled by this display of nature’s audacious fiery splendor. Making the photographs even more impressive is that they were not touched up or altered in any way, and Grunewald did not use lens filters when shooting any of this. It is no wonder that when the pictures were released they gained immediate acclaim and enchanted practically everyone who saw them, as well as causing tourist numbers to Kawah Ijien to skyrocket.
These streams of blazing molten sulfur are certainly enough to make one want to see them with their own eyes, but before packing your bags there are some things to seriously keep in mind. Although Kawah Ijien has not fully erupted since 1817, when its volcanic fury displaced the crater lake and inundated several villages, it is nevertheless an active volcano and over the ensuing years has experienced many phreatic eruptions, which are explosions of steam, water, ash, and rock fragments caused when magma heats ground or surface water. The crater is also heavily pervaded by numerous toxic, deadly gases including sulfuric dioxide which, depending on the wind conditions and concentrations, can cause anything from eye irritation, to sore throats, respiratory problems, dizziness, feinting, or even death. The crater lake itself has been known to suddenly release large clouds of lethal gases, and it is not uncommon to see birds drop dead in mid-flight over its alluring turquoise surface. It is highly recommended that visitors where a gas mask and check conditions beforehand when visiting Kawah Ijien, just to make sure that it is fully safe to approach. If none of this intimidates you and you still have the resolve to go, then you can expect a 2 hour hike to the rim of the crater and an additional 45 minute climb down into the crater proper over difficult terrain permeated by sulfuric smoke and gases. However, by all accounts from people who have made the journey here all of the risk and hardship is absolutely worth it to see the once in a lifetime spectacle of nature’s greatest light show.

Mysterious Universe


India Bangalore lake of toxic snowy froth

Is it snowing in India's tropical southern city of Bangalore?
The picture above would certainly make you think so.
Unfortunately, the reality is quite different: what looks like snow is actually harmful snow-white froth that floats up from the city's largest lake and spills over into neighbouring areas.
Over the years, the 9,000-acre Bellandur lake in India's technology capital has been polluted by chemicals and sewage.
IT professional Debasish Ghosh has been taking pictures of the lake of "harmful snowy froth" for months now. Here is a selection of his pictures.




Global warming to pick up in 2015, 2016

Man-made global warming is set to produce exceptionally high average temperatures this year and next, boosted by natural weather phenomena such as El Nino, Britain's top climate and weather body said in a report Monday.
"It looks very likely that globally 2014, 2015 and 2016 will all be amongst the very warmest years ever recorded," Rowan Sutton of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, which contributed to the report, told journalists.
"This is not a fluke," he said. "We are seeing the effects of energy steadily accumulating in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere, caused by greenhouse gas emissions."
The rate at which global temperatures are increasing is also on track to pick up in the coming years, ending a period of more than a decade in which the pace of warming worldwide had appeared to slow down, the report said.
This "pause" has been seized upon by sceptics as evidence that climate change was driven more by natural cycles than human activity.
Some scientists, however, argue that there was no significant slowdown, pointing instead to flawed calculations.
The 20-page report from Britain's Met Office, entitled "Big changes underway in the climate system?", highlights current transitions in major weather patterns that affect rainfall and temperatures at a regional level.
An El Nino weather pattern centered in the tropical Pacific Ocean is "well underway", the report says, and shaping up to be one of the most intense on record. Very strong El Ninos also occurred over the winters of 1997 and 1982.
Set to grow stronger in the coming months, the current El Nino -- a result of shifting winds and ocean circulation -- is likely to result is dry conditions in parts of Asia and Australia, as well as southern and sub-Saharan North Africa, the Met Office said.
By contrast, the southwestern United States -- including parched California, suffering from an historic drought -- has a strong chance of seeing higher-than-average rainfall.
El Ninos also affect tropical storms, making them less likely in the North Atlantic and more intense in the West Pacific, where they are known as typhoons.
Overall, an El Nino is also likely to add a little heat to the general impact of global warming.
Meanwhile, warming sea surface temperatures along the North American west coast point to a reversal of another natural pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.
This, too, could temporarily nudge regional temperatures higher, but has yet to be confirmed, the report said.
Finally, the interplay of ocean currents and atmosphere in the Atlantic -- another multi-decade oscillation -- is moving the other way, and will have a cooling effect.
"The current warm phase is now 20 years long and historical precedent suggests a return to relatively cool conditions could occur within a few years," the report says.
By itself, that would mean cooler and drying summers in northern Europe, and increased rainfall in the northeastern United States.
While all of these cyclical forces affect weather and temperatures trends, global warming is the main driver of change today, the report concluded.
"We know that natural patterns contribute to global temperature in any given year, but very warm temperatures so far this year indicate the continued impact of increasing greenhouse gases," said Stephen Belcher, director of the Met Office Hadley Centre.



Earth's Tree Population Declining at an Alarming Rate

Earth is home to just over 3 trillion trees - the redwoods of California, the olive trees of Tunisia, the cherry trees of Japan, the eucalyptus of Australia and so many more - but they are being lost at an alarming rate because of human activities.
Those are the findings of researchers who on Wednesday unveiled the most comprehensive assessment of global tree populations ever conducted, using data including satellite imagery and ground-based tree density estimates from more than 400,000 locations worldwide.
The estimate of 3.04 trillion trees - an estimated 422 for every person - is about eight times higher than a previous estimate of 400 billion trees that was based on satellite imagery but less data from the ground.
The new findings leave abundant reason for concern - with people at the root of the problem.
The number of trees has fallen by about 46 percent since the start of human civilization and each year there is a gross loss of 15 billion trees and a net loss of 10 billion, said Yale University ecologist Thomas Crowther, who led the study published in the journal Nature.
"There are currently fewer trees than at any point since the start of human civilization and this number is still falling at an alarming rate," he said. "If anything, the scale of these numbers just highlights the need to step up our efforts if we are going to begin to repair some of these effects on a global scale."
Crowther said a wide range of human activities deplete forested land. Conversion of land for agriculture historically has had the biggest impact on forests but industrial and urban development also have had huge effects, Crowther said.
As the global human population grows, the net loss of trees worldwide also may increase, Yale researcher Henry Glick said.
"Trees are some of the most prominent and important organisms on the planet," Crowther said. "Trees provide a wide range of important ecosystem services for humans. They store water and nutrients, stabilize the soil, provide habitats for plants and animals, offset the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and they generate the oxygen that we need to breath."
The study found that while the highest tree densities were in the sub-Arctic regions of Russia, Scandinavia and North America, the largest forested areas were in the tropics, home to about 43 percent of the global tree total.

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