India’s Only Active Volcano

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    On a small remote island off the Andamans is India’s only active volcano. Thought to be dormant, like many of the other (mostly underwater) volcanoes that ring the line along the edge of Indo-Burmese tectonic plate, a team of geologists stumbled upon this ‘active’ volcano oozing smoke and lava on January 23rd, 2017.

    It is amazing that the 7th largest country in the world, India is home to only one active volcano, Barren Island. Given the history of the Indian subcontinent and how it moved one would assume that India sits on unstable ground. But its only recorded ‘active’ volcano is on this remote Barren island situated in the Andaman Sea off the Bay of Bengal, located around 138 km from Port Blair.

    The small island around 3.2 sq miles in diameter is just one in a series of volcanic ranges, most of them underwater, on the edge of Indian and Burmese tectonic plates. Around 150 km northwest from the Barren Island, is the Narcondam Island, another small volcanic island, which the Geological Survey of India has termed as a dormant volcano.

    Originally the Barren Island too was an underwater volcano but magma from successive eruptions over millions of years means that today the highest elevation is 354 meters above the sea level. Based on Argon-Argon dating, a way of finding the dates of volcanic rocks, it is now established that the oldest lava flow of the volcano was 1.6 million years old. The oldest part of the volcano stands on the sea floor, 2250 meters below the sea level. Now over 350 meters above sea level, you can imagine how high it has risen. The Caldera or the place from where the volcano erupts is 2 km in diameter and opens to the sea, on one side.

    The first known record of an active eruption at the Barren Island was in 1787, when a British sailor Lieutenant RH Colebrooke, on his way to Penag, aboard the ship ‘Trail Snow’ saw smoke rising from the crater over the island. He reported -

    ‘I left that coast on March 21st and landed on the Barren Island on the 24th – The volcano was in a violent state of eruption, bursting out immense volume of smoke and frequent showers of red hot stones. Some were of the weight three to four tonnes.’

    This report was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal along with the sketch of the volcano that he made.

    The volcano eruption was recorded in 1803 and then there was no activity for the next 188 years and the volcano was believed to be dormant. But then it erupted again in 1991, 2003 and 2005. Recently, on 23rd January 2017, a team of scientists led by Dr Abhay Mudholkar, from National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, who were surveying the region around Andaman and Nicobar Islands, stumbled upon an eruption on the island.

    This was however not the large violent eruptions that one would expect. It was seen that the volcano was erupting in small episodes lasting about 5 to 10 minutes. During the daytime, only ash clouds were observed. However, after sundown, the team observed red lava fountains spewing from the crater into the atmosphere and hot lava flows streaming down the slopes of the volcano. The team also witnessed the continuation of spurts of blasts and smoke. This is when Barren Island was declared as India’s only ‘active’ volcano.

    The volcanic island is uninhabited by humans and the northern part of the island is, as the name suggests, barren and devoid of vegetation. One of the most interesting animals found on the island is the feral goat. It is the largest animals on the island and can be seen grazing around. Interestingly these goats drink saltwater in the absence of sweet water on the island, making them really unique. Along with a small population of goats, there are other small animals like bats, flying foxes and a few rodent species that live on the desolate Barren Island.

    Sadly public access to Barren Island is restricted. This is an area heavily protected by the Indian Navy and the Coast Guards because it is strategically located. Though you can't see the volcano from the sea, you may well be able to see the column of smoke rising from the island, if you happen to pass it by. Do keep a watch out, if you ever head there.


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