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Spewing lava igniting the night sky on the Andaman Sea attracts early birds who've anew reason to go to India's farthest tip

AMONG India's many geological wonders, perhaps the least known are its volcanoes. And we don't mean the volcanic eruptions of the Deccan Traps in western India that scientists believe led to the extinction of dinosaurs millions of years ago, but to the two volcanoes in the Andaman Sea -- one of which is now in a state of eruption -- that have the potential of becoming major tourist attractions.

Volcanic eruptions are known to be cataclysmic events. Scientists are still trying to unravel the finer details of the Deccan Traps volcanic eruption whose lava was said to have covered an area of over half-a-million square kilometers.

The Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines in 1991 brought about large-scale devastation and profound changes in global climatic patterns. The volcano on the Luzon island of the Philippines had erupted after being dormant for 450 years, killing several hundred people. But the two Indian volcanoes -- on the Barren Island and Narcondam in the Andaman Sea -- haven't acquired such deadly proportions.

The one on Barren Island is the only active volcano in Indian territory; it's also the northernmost active volcano along the great line of explosive volcanoes called the Andaman-Sumatra- Java arc. The greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred along this arc, back in 1883, at the Krakatoa volcano, located in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java.

Narcondam is a dormant volcano and lies north of Barren Island.

It may have erupted during the Holocene period -- dating back to 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The volcano derives its name from the Sanskrit word -- ' narak kundam ', or hell's pit.

Volcanic research in the region has seen a renewed surge after the Sumatra earthquake of December 26, 2004, that caused the Indian Ocean tsunami, and another major earthquake which occurred 280 km north of Port Blair on August 10, 2009, which did not trigger a tsunami.

The eruption of Pinatubo was also preceded by earthquakes of significant magnitude. The surge in scientific interest in the Barren Island volcano is because of its present phase of eruption, which began towards 2008- end.

Tour operators also see an opportunity here. It is difficult to land on the island, but cruise ships can easily navigate around it. Small groups of foreign tourists are already into it, though it is an expensive proposition. Private ships and yachts could cost up to Rs 75,000 for an eight- hour trip. Tourists who visited the island recently say that though the volcano is still active, the lava flows have subsided and there are only ash eruptions.

Historic and scientific records show that the volcano had been in eruption between 1787 and 1832. After a long gap, it became active in the early 1990s and erupted in 1991, 1994- 1995 and 2005- 2006. The current eruption is the fourth in the past two decades, making it a very active volcano.

A Geological Survey of India team that visited last year reported periodic explosions throwing out a substance known as basaltic tephra. Now, another research group has reported that the welldeveloped lava flow being spewed by the volcano is entering the sea from a completely different route -- the north -- than the one taken by all the recent lava flows.

" The fresh lava flows have abandoned the path taken by most earlier flows and are forming a new lava delta," says Jyotiranjan S. Ray, a geochemist from the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, who has led scientific expeditions to the island thrice in the present phase of eruption.

THE present eruption is not only changing the shape of the island, but also increasing its size," Ray adds. Ray's team included Hetu C. Sheth from IITBombay and Rajneesh Bhutani from Pondicherry University. Most of Barren Island -- whose radius is just about 3km -- is made up of rocks and debris from recent and earlier eruptions. The typical feature of this volcano is that it produces ' a'a lava' that has a rough surface and cracks all over. That's why it is called a'a -- our exclamations when our feet get hurt.

The different route taken by the lava flows in the present eruption means that they are flowing into the sea and this is a spectacular sight. When the hot lava -- about 800 degrees centigrade -- splashes into the sea a large steam plume arises from the water.

Recalls Ray: " Initially, when we observed this steam plume from our ship, we couldn't figure out what was causing it. Getting closer to the volcano revealed that the plume was being produced by a rapid vigorous evaporation of seawater caused by an active lava flow descending over the cliffs." Understanding the present and past eruptive patterns of active volcanoes -- particularly those that are not monitored regularly, such as Barren Island -- is important to predict future eruptive activity and to evaluate potential hazards. Ray, therefore, makes a case for the government to invest in a permanent research station on the island so that researchers from across the country can work there.

For tourists, a night out on Barren Island may not be an ideal vacation. But for those inclined towards adventure, it's the nearest they can be to an active volcano in the sub- continent. Till the idea catches on, you can make plans of seeing the majestic volcano veiled by the plumes of steam rising from the sea.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Mar 28, 2010
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