Amazing Places

The Coldest Volcano in the World Erupts Black Lava

Did you ever go through an all-black phase? Black clothes, black hair, black makeup, black everything? The great thing about all-black is that you can send two messages at once. First, that you're the coolest person in the room. And second, that cool as you are, you're ready for when things get hot, too. If that's a phase you never grew out of, Ol Doinyo Lengai won't judge — it's the coldest, blackest volcano in the world, and it's got the fastest lava of all.

A Cold, Black, Volcanic Heart

So let's be clear: the "coldest volcano" is still pretty freaking hot. The crackling black lava that erupts from Ol Doinyo Lengai runs about 510 degrees Celsius (950 degrees Fahrenheit) — well below the melting point of most lava (1,000 degrees Celsius/1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), but still a bit warmer than a comfortable jacuzzi. Still, it's cool enough that it's actually possible to fall in and survive (though you won't have a good time). In 2008, a man on an expedition to the volcano slipped and fell directly into an active lava flow. To this date, he remains the only person known to have survived falling into lava.

Ol Doinyo Lengai's one-of-a-kind lava forms thanks to its chemical makeup. Unlike the basalt that forms the lava of most volcanoes, the magma rocks of Ol Doinyo Lengai are carbonatite, made up of calcium, sodium, and dissolved carbon dioxide. Carbonatite has a much lower melting point than basalt, which is also why the lava never heats up enough to gain a reddish glow (except one that's faintly visible at night). Otherwise, the lava stays an inky black color until it cools and hardens, at which point it turns white.

A Fast-Flowing Eruption

It's easy to hear about the coolest volcano in the world and think it's not something to be taken seriously. But in some ways, Ol Doinyo Lengai is even more dangerous than much hotter volcanoes. The glowing red lava that gets the most attention flows in a thick, pudding-esque mass at about 10 kilometers per hour (6 miles per hour) — that's easily outrun (or out-walked) by any human bystander. But Ol Doinyo Lengai's lava rushes downstream as fast as water, thanks, again, to its unique chemical makeup.

Here's to you, Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Johnny Cash of volcanoes.

Other Weird Volcanoes: The Lava Lake in Antarctica

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 13, 2017

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