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A powerful strombolian- to vulcanian-type explosion from the Showa crater of Sakurajima volcano (Kyushu, Japan).

Fountains of lava erupt from Sakurajima on September 27, 2013.

Photograph by Tom Pfeiffer, www.volcanodiscovery.com

A. R. Williams

National Geographic

Published October 10, 2013

Lava spewed several hundred feet high during an exceptionally active phase of the Sakurajima volcano in southern Japan last month.

Bolts of lightning crackled at the same time, ignited by electrostatic charges in the ejected ash.

As one of the world's most active volcanoes, Sakurajima can erupt more than a thousand times a year.

It's also one of the most accessible volcanoes. "You can get off a plane, rent a car, and be there in half an hour," says Tom Pfeiffer, a volcanologist and photographer who captured these images. "In three or four hours, there's a good chance to see really beautiful eruptions."

Sakurajima first erupted about 13,000 years ago inside a much older volcanic crater. Today its cone rises 3,664 feet (1,117 meters) above Kagoshima Bay (map) off the southern coast of the island of Kyushu. (Related: "New Giant Volcano Below Sea Is Largest in the World.")

Sakurajima volcano
Sakurajima ejects a boiling cloud of ash on July 21, 2013.

Tom Pfeiffer / www.volcanodiscovery.com

It frequently belches out a billowing column of steam and ash, which rises vertically when there's no wind. That was the case at the end of July this year, when Pfeiffer took this shot (above) of ash rising about 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) into the air.

The ash slowly spread into the shape of an umbrella and then began to fall onto the flanks of the volcano. "It was becoming very unpleasant," says Pfeiffer. "I had to evacuate."

If the wind is blowing westward, the ash settles on the city of Kagoshima, located just five miles (eight kilometers) away across a narrow stretch of water.

So far, it remains a nuisance rather than a serious problem for the city's 600,000 residents. They sweep off their front steps, dust off their cars, and wear protective masks to keep from breathing in the ash.

But a large cloud could clog sewers, disrupt electronic transmissions, and cause roofs to cave in. "One inch of fallen ash is like two inches of water," says Pfeiffer. "It's a heavy load." (Related: "Pictures: Mexico Volcano Spews Ash 2 Miles High.")

There's also a larger danger living so close to such a cantankerous peak. A large eruption could completely transform the landscape.

That's what happened here more than a century ago during Japan's biggest volcanic event of the 20th century. Sakurajima was then an island. But on January 12, 1914, it erupted so massively that a river of lava reached Kyushu. That hardened into a bridge of land and turned the volcano into a peninsula.

Experts now think the magma chamber in the bowels of Sakurajima is about 90 percent as full as it was in 1914. That means another large eruption could be percolating. (Related: "Volcano's 'Scream' Before Eruption Explained.")

As local volcanologists monitor the crater's sighs and tremors, Kagoshima residents remain on alert. It's the price they must pay for their spot on the Pacific Ocean's fiery rim and their front-row seat at one of nature's most spectacular light shows.

19 comments
Richard Haro
Richard Haro

Amazing! I want to see and experience this incredible event!

Madison Smith
Madison Smith

so cool because it is a volcano that has exploded in the air and it looks like it has lightning in it 's lava shooting out

Leigh Gikas
Leigh Gikas

Absolutely fantastic.  There is little, if anything, that can match the power of a large scale volcanic eruption; however there is little, if anything, that can match it's beauty either.  For the sake of the residents I hope Sakurajima isn't about to erupt on a massive site, for that matter I extend that wish to the rest of us also.  Not sure what kind of fallout would result in such a massive eruption.

Chaminda Liyanage
Chaminda Liyanage

It's really terrific scenery and very interested story behind that.

Godefroy Dondjio
Godefroy Dondjio

J'adore Nat Géo. continuez de nous émerveiller encore et encore. Merciiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

Tony Ridler
Tony Ridler

Volcanic sludge has long been used for building materials. What happened to the plan to burn garbage, for fuel, and recycle the sludge for building materials?

Sada Sadit
Sada Sadit

MIS SALUDOS, ME ENCANTA Y FACINA NATIONAL GEOGRAFIC, SU PARTICIPACION EN EL MUNDO, HUMANO, LA NATURALEZA, OCEANOS, VOLCANES TODO  A LO QUE SE HAN DECICADO DURANTE AÑOS, LE DOY LAS GRACIAS PUE A TRAVEZ DE UDS Y SU TRABAJO, CONOSCO, TODO AQUELLO QUE ME FACINA, TENGO DE SUS REVISTAS, AUNQUE NO LAS PUEDO COMPRAR YA, PUES SOY DE VENEZUELA Y BUENO YA SABEN COMO ESTA LA SITUACION AKI, PERO VEO SU PROGRAMAS EN EL CANAL NAG GEO Y AHORA POR FACEBOOK, OSEA MUCHAS GRACIAS Y LOS FELICITOS. DIOS NOS BENDIGA A TODOS!! <3

Denzil Fernando
Denzil Fernando

Remember the time I traveled, lived and visited Kyushu in the mid 70's, was'nt 'fortunate' to witness a similar spectacle.  The residents lived a quiet life and did not discuss or mention anything then.

Michael Clarkson
Michael Clarkson

the house prices must be reasonably low. ideal for somebody who's not that bothered. a bit like buying an attractive car for less than £100 but it frequently breaks down

E P
E P

I must inquire... what would it be like to take up residents so near a volcano?

Michael Dowling
Michael Dowling

Sounds like the perfect place to build a nuclear reactor.

Dartagnon Puissant
Dartagnon Puissant

@Michael Dowling   A geothermal Plant might top the nuclear ... less drama in case of quake which are common around volcanoes ... note the lightning bolts from the static charge and the dust ... wild environment .... good for Geo-Thermal ... 

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