skip to primary navigation skip to content

Department of Geography


Volcanological and atmospheric science at Mt. Erebus volcano (Antarctica)

Mt. Erebus is one of the largest active volcanoes on Earth. It reaches nearly 4 km above sea level, and is renowned in volcanological circles for its persistently active lava lake, which is sited in the summit crater. Despite its remote location, an extensive monitoring programme is in place, led by Philip Kyle at New Mexico Tech. The Cambridge Volcanology Group has participated in annual field campaigns on Erebus since 2003, making detailed measurements of heat, gas and aerosol emissions from the volcano using a variety of open path spectroscopy and in situ sampling techniques.

One of our findings is that Erebus is a significant source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas which plays an important role in tropospheric ozone chemistry. NO2 is not a primary volcanic gas but is probably formed by thermal fixation of atmospheric nitrogen at the hot surface of the lava lake. We have suggested that Erebus is the main point source for NO2 (and very likely other reactive nitrogen oxides) in the Antarctic troposphere. Given the high altitude and sustained degassing from the volcano, the measured emissions have implications for understanding aspects of both the atmospheric and cryospheric nitrogen chemistry of the continent.

We have also applied infrared spectroscopy to high time resolution measurements of emissions from the lava lake. Analysis of these data provides rich information on the dynamics and geometry of the plumbing system of the volcano. In a new paper, part of an in press Special Issue of Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research edited by Clive Oppenheimer and Philip Kyle, we have argued that the bulk of the gas emitted is sourced two kilometres below the lava lake yet is in chemical equilibrium with magma at the surface. We also find clear evidence that only part of the deep magma that yields carbon dioxide rises to shallower levels in the volcano’s plumbing system.


Oppenheimer, C., Kyle, P.R., Tsanev, V.I., McGonigle, A.J.S., Mather, T.A. & Sweeney, D., 2005, Mt. Erebus, the largest point source of NO2 in Antarctica, Atmospheric Environment, 39, 6000–6006.

Oppenheimer, C. & Kyle, P. (Eds.), 2008, Volcanology of Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Special Issue of Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177, vii+pp. 531–754.

Calkins, J., Oppenheimer, C., Kyle, P.R., 2008, Ground-based thermal imaging of lava lakes at Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177, 695–704.

Sweeney, D., Kyle, P. R., Oppenheimer, C., 2008, Sulfur dioxide emissions and degassing behavior of Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177, 725–733.

Oppenheimer, C. & Kyle, P.R., 2008, Probing the magma plumbing of Erebus volcano, Antarctica, by open-path FTIR spectroscopy of gas emissions, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177, 743–754.

Oppenheimer, C., Lomakina, A., Kyle, P.R., Kingsbury, N.G., & Boichu, M., 2009, Pulsatory magma supply to a phonolite lava lake, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 284, 392–398.

Boichu, M., Oppenheimer, C., Tsanev, V.I. & Kyle, P.R., 2010, High temporal resolution SO2 flux measurements at Erebus volcano, Antarctica. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 190, 325–336.

Ilyinskaya, E., Oppenheimer, C., Mather, T.A., Martin, R.S., & Kyle, P., 2010, Size-resolved chemical composition of aerosol emitted by Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, 11, Q03017, doi:10.1029/2009GC002855.

Oppenheimer, C., P. Kyle, F. Eisele, J. Crawford, G. Huey, D. Tanner, S. Kim, L. Mauldin, D. Blake, A. Beyersdorf, M. Buhr, & D. Davis (2010), Atmospheric chemistry of an Antarctic volcanic plume, J. Geophys. Res., 115, D04303, doi:10.1029/2009JD011910.

Graf, H.-F., Shirsat, S.V., Oppenheimer, C., Jarvis, M.J., Podzun, R., & Jacob, D., 2010, Continental scale Antarctic deposition of sulphur and black carbon from anthropogenic and volcanic sources, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 10, 2457-2465.

Oppenheimer, C., Moretti, R., Kyle, P., Eschenbacher, A., Lowenstern, J., Hervig, R. & Dunbar, N.W., 2011, Mantle to surface degassing of alkalic magmas at Erebus volcano, Antarctica, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 306, 261–271, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2011.04.005.

Boichu, M., Oppenheimer, C., Roberts, T.J., Tsanev, V. & Kyle, P.R., 2011, On bromine, nitrogen oxides and ozone depletion in the tropospheric plume of Erebus volcano (Antarctica), Atmospheric Environment, 45, 3856–3866.

Location of Mt. Erebus
Location of Mt. Erebus. Source: MEVO.

Ice towers
Ice towers beneath the summit plume emitted by Mount Erebus.

Infrared spectrometer - beforeInfrared spectrometer - after
Infrared spectrometer for measuring gas emissions sited at the crater rim on Erebus, pictured before and after a spell of weather…

Thermal emission from Erebus' lava lake
Thermal emission from Erebus’ lava lake detected by Hyperion onboard NASA’s Earth Observing-1 spacecraft. Source: NASA/JPL.