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Satellites look into a volcano's hell


This view of Tolbachik Volcano on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula was captured in infrared and visible light on Dec. 1 by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing 1 satellite. The infrared readings in red highlight hot lava flows from the volcano.

Smoke and lava issue forth from Russia's Tolbachik Volcano in a pair of pictures from NASA's Earth Observing 1 satellite. What a difference in the perspectives!

The visible-light view from EO-1's Advanced Land Imager, captured on Dec. 1, shows billows of ash and steam, with a stream of dark lava cutting across the landscape.

In contrast, the infrared-plus-visible view reveals a nightmarish red river, running through a bilious green landscape. This version of the scene gets its eerie look from the false colors used to represent different wavelengths in the infrared part of the spectrum. The blood-red shade reflects the high surface temperatures of the lava, while the shades of green signify colder surroundings on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

A similar infrared-plus-visible image comes from the ASTER instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite. The ASTER image, our third view of Tolbachik's hell, combines a picture of the volcano from July 19 with fresh infrared data from Dec. 3 showing the lava flow.

The outburst marked Tolbachik's return to active status after 36 years of dormancy. The lava flows reportedly destroyed two research camps and forced school closures in nearby villages. Some experts worry that Tolbachik could unleash an eruption as powerful as Eyjafjallajökull's Icelandic blast, which disrupted trans-Atlantic air traffic for weeks back in 2010.

In the past few days, Russian authorities have downgraded Tolbachik's alert status from red to orange. Nevertheless, the mountain bears watching: Denison University volcanologist Erik Klemetti is monitoring the situation on his Eruptions blog.


The visible-light view from NASA's EO-1 satellite shows Tolbachik's lava flow as a river of darkness cutting through the snowy scene.


A false-color view from the ASTER imager on NASA's Terra satellite shows the Tolbachik Volcano and its surroundings in infrared and visible wavelengths. A scene from July 19 provides the background, with vegetation in red, older lava flows in dark gray and snow in white. A nighttime thermal infrared image, acquired Dec. 3, has been overlaid on the earlier image and highlights the hot lava flows in bright yellow.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other science and space news coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered via email. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.