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Australian volcano near Antarctica captured on satellite spewing lava

One of Australia’s two active volcanoes on an island near Antarctica – known as Big Ben – has been spotted by satellite spewing lava.

The lava flow on the uninhabited Heard Island, about 4,100 kilometres south-west of Perth and 1,500km north of Antarctica, is part of an ongoing eruption that was first noted more than a decade ago.

The image was caught by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite on 25 May and is a composite of an optical picture and an infrared image.

The lava is seen flowing down the side of Big Ben from near the summit, known as Mawson Peak. Australia’s other active volcano is on the nearby McDonald Islands.

Reports collated by the Global Volcanism Program at the Smithsonian Institution, before the image was shared, suggest the current lava flow is part of an “eruption episode” that has been ongoing since September 2012. The program has records of eruptions at Heard Island going back to 1910.

The eruption of Big Ben, a volcanic massif located on the summit of Heard Island in Antarctica in January 2016. Scientists on board the CSIRO research vessel Investigator caught the occurrence while circling the islands on the sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Plateau. Photograph: CSIRO

Dr Teresa Ubide, a volcanologist and associate professor at the University of Queensland, said: “This volcano has been erupting since the beginning of the 20th century. What’s happening is quite normal and is generating lava flows.”

The Global Volcanism Program records about 20 “lava flow” incidents since September 2012.

Ubide said Heard Island was known as an intraplate volcano because it was in the middle of a tectonic plate rather than being on their margins.

She said these types of volcanoes were caused by a “hotspot” inside the Earth and were typically not very explosive and so emitted little ash.

She said: “Many eruptions are composed of smaller events. This [most recent lava flow] seems to be following what’s been happening there since 2012.”

Dr Jodi Fox, an adjunct researcher at the University of Tasmania, is an Antarctic volcanologist currently working at the National Museum for Nature and Science in Japan.

She said Heard Island was likely between 750,000 and 500,000 years old. Evidence suggested the source of the magma was the Earth’s upper mantle which was about 45 kilometres below the surface.

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Commenting on the latest lava flows, she said: “This is really pretty typical of how it behaves. It produces these relatively slow-moving flows with few, if any, explosions. Sometimes there’s a plume of vapour and gas at the same time.”

Big Ben was unusual for an interplate volcano, she said, because it appeared to lifting higher when other similar ocean volcanoes had tended to eventually collapse into the Earth’s crust under their own weight.

The Big Ben volcano and Heard Island sit on the Antarctic plate. There are more than 100 volcanoes on Antarctica itself, including about 90 that are hidden below the ice.

Heard Island and McDonald Islands sit on the Kerguelen Plateau that is elevated about 3,000 metres above the surrounding sea floor.

Heard Island covers 368 sq km and is about 40km long and 20km wide.

Mawson Peak at the top of Big Ben is 2,745 metres above sea level – 517 metres higher than the biggest peak on Australia’s mainland, Mount Kosciuszko in New South Wales.

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