A lot of you may have seen some of these photos and videos before. They definitely made the rounds of internet media recently. And why wouldn’t they? I mean, they’re cool. This shit is real. There’s no photoshop involved, this is what the Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia really looks like.
So what’s happening to make this volcano so darn blue, you ask? The answer is simple. Sulfur.
So you know when you were a kid and you used to experiment with burning different things, and you noticed that some things made different colored flames when they burn? Like how a lot of evergreen branches, and particularly their needles, burn green?
Wait, you didn’t do that? Oh come on, every kid plays with fire. That’s totally normal. Right? Guys?
Okay, if you had been so privileged as to have parents who were either inattentive or who encouraged experimentation in all things chemistry, you would have noticed that some materials produce some excitingly differently colored flames. This is because different chemicals emit different frequencies of light when they combust. One of the most spectacular, and most relevant to us at this moment, is sulfur, which burns a bright blue.
The blue liquid you see running down the mountain side in a lot of these images is not in fact lava, which is made of molten rock. This is liquid sulfur, the surface of which is actually emitting a gaseous sulfur which is burning a lovely shade of…I don’t know, would you call that aqua? We really should call it sulfur blue, since that’s what it is.
The Ijen volcano has its fair share of true lava and lovely red and orange flames too. In fact, normal daylight pretty much drowns out the effect of the blue sulfur flames, making the volcano appear to be a normal red. But at night….
(Sorry it’s in French.)
The Ijen mountain has extraordinarily high concentrations of sulfur, making it a great natural resource for the people of Java. Sulfur is used as a preservative in many food industries. The miners who work the Ijen mountain, many of whom are children, seek out the rivulets of sulfur that flow from the thermal vents of the volcano and collect the cooled sulfur for a living.
Wait…what did I just say? Did I just say that a bunch of children are running around this volcano trying to make a living collecting a substance that we just saw running burning down the mountain side?
You guys were giving me shit for burning stuff in my nice safe fireplace at home when I was a kid, but these kids WORK ON A VOLCANO!
This is the thing that really gets me. Most of the photos and footage you see kicking around about the blue volcano are from artist Olivier Grunewald. He shot a documentary (I linked to part of it above) at Ijen, hoping to bring some attention to the harsh working conditions and health problems many of the miners suffer from years of breathing sulfur dioxide and other toxic gasses. But when I look up stuff about the blue volcano, I hear very little about that. Mostly it’s all “why is this volcano blue?” rather then “why are these miners literally killing themselves mining sulfur for $5 a day?” This article from Smithsonian.com goes into it a little, read it if you want to know more.
But I guess there really isn’t much to say about that, is there. It sucks. It breaks my heart to think about. But there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t even boycott products that contain sulfur, since most sulfur in this country is sourced from the byproducts of extracting sulfur contaminates from natural gas and petroleum (or so wikipedia tells me).
What I can do is talk about it, since ignoring it definitely won’t help, and if I can’t figure out any concrete call to action at this time then at least I can do my part to keep it in the collective consciousness and hope that in time opportunities for change arise.
And I can be glad that Grunewald’s team distributed gas masks to all the miners who they worked with on their documentary. Thank you, Mr. Grunewald. Your photos are amazing.