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From the archives: Adventurers explore a volcano in ’33

To mark our 150th anniversary, we review Popular science stories (both hits and gaps) that helped define scientific progress, understanding and innovation – with an additional hint of contemporary context. Take a look Remarkable pages and see our full coverage of the anniversary here.

Despite theirs tragic ends at Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991, prolific volcanologists Katya and Maurice Kraft were not the first to photograph hot lava at close range. IN April 1933, Popular Science published the dramatic story of researcher Arpad Kirner, who was lowered with an asbestos rope 800 feet into the mouth of the Stromboli off the coast of Sicily to capture its roaring, smoky vent.

With a 2000-year series of eruptions and almost permanent lava fountains, Stromboli is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. IN Lighthouse on the Mediterranean has been spewing bright bombs continuously since 1932, and there have been several significant eruptions in that century alone. Its activity is so distinct that when other volcanoes emit lava in a similar way, they are called Strombolian.

Although Kirner offers scientific insights into the interior of the summit – “determining the timing of the rhythm of explosions” and “collecting samples of gases and minerals” – he is not humble, embellishing his story with a story typical of his era. Inside the Volcano is a past style of research and storytelling that compensates for the lack of fine science of entertainment value.

Today it can be said that technology has taken part of the adventure out of the study of volcanoes. Although the most intense footage of the eruptions still puts people in danger, The drones equipped with gas sensors and sampling devices, may soon offer an alternative. For some volcanologists, however, there is nothing more exciting than getting close to a lava flow.

“800 Feet on a Fire Rope: Inside a Burning Volcano” (Arpad Kirner, April 1933)

Hanging at the end of an asbestos rope, the fearless author is seen on the right as he descends 800 feet into the heart of Stromboli Volcano. A string of stone was thrown below to obtain the depth of the crater before the descent began. Arpad Kirner on the left.

A thin white thread, an asbestos rope, rose straight above my head to the edge of the cliff. Beneath me boiling lava and fumes. Hanging at the end of the rope, I was lowered 800 feet into the mouth of an active volcano!

A steel helmet protected my head from flying stones. My suit, my shoes, my gloves were made of asbestos. Oxygen tanks were locked on my back, allowing me to breathe in the fumes. I realized a scientific adventure that I had been planning for years.

My friends thought I was crazy when I announced my intention to explore the crater of an active volcano, go down into the depths of its huge pit, photograph the hellish ventilation hole as it boils and murmurs, go where the explosions quickly follow each other and where phenomena, still mysterious, are constantly happening.

None of those who had preceded me in volcanic research had dared to descend into a crater with full activity. They had contented themselves with simple excursions to the mouth of Vesuvius or Mount Etna during periods of rest. If I succeeded in my plan, I knew I would witness phenomena never seen before. If I returned to the open and in the sunlight after this trip to hell, I would bring back specimens, solid and gaseous, of unusual interest. So I decided to make an effort.

My choice fell on Stromboli, the volcanic cone rising from the Mediterranean north of Sicily. Why Stromboli? Because it is the only volcano in Europe with continuous activity. Here I risked no nonsense. In his crater, I was sure I would find the spectacle I wanted.

To me, this volcano was an old acquaintance. I had studied it many times. I had climbed its slopes, approached its mouth, and knew that the shape of its peak changed from year to year. To choose the most favorable place for my descent, I visited it again. Then I prepared my equipment. Everything was ready!

With the greatest difficulty we pulled the equipment up the side of Stromboli, which rises sharply from the water without the slightest beach. At the pre-selected location I prepared for the test. I was attached to the asbestos rope with a heavy leather belt similar to the ones used by mountain climbers. Control of my descent was controlled from the top by a winch placed a few yards from the edge of the crater. To prevent wear of the rope from scraping on the rocks, a reel is placed on the edge of the crater.

Several friends and some of the locals on the island, chosen for their strength, had accompanied me and worked with the sail to which my rope was attached. As a means of signaling to them after entering the crater, I carried an electric hand lamp. The wires running through the asbestos rope supplied electricity for the powerful low light.

I was well aware of the danger I faced when I slipped over the edge of the crater and was slowly launched into space. I knew that my return was problematic. My precautions may not be enough. My heart and lungs may not be able to withstand the pressure of the gases and the great heat. Hanging in space, I didn’t know where I was going or where I would put my feet. What awaited me at the end of my descent? Solid rock? Boiling lava? A steep, slippery ledge with fire underneath? I could not say.

As I sank into the pit, I examined the walls of the crater, black, red, yellow, pierced with holes from which sulfur vapor poured out. I saw huge openings beneath me, shrouded in smoke. When I looked up, I judged the distance I had come down and wondered:

“Will the rope withstand the tension?” Can they ever take me out again? ”

Suddenly the descent was over. I landed on a ledge 800 feet below the top of the crater. The rock was extremely hot but hard. I could stand up. I measured the temperature of the rock and found that in some places it is up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The air around me was 150 degrees and saturated with poisonous sulfur fumes. Thanks to my oxygen equipment, I was able to breathe and so began a tour of the bottom of the crater.

I took off my rope and walked to the real openings of the volcano, huge vertical pits ten to thirty feet in diameter. At intervals, with great explosions, these mouths spewed lava jets. However, the pits were tilted in such a way that the lava always flowed on one side. By determining the timing of the explosions, I was able to race to the mouths and, in some cases, actually bend over them, between eruptions, looking perpendicular to the inside while looking down at a well.

What did I see there? Beyond the screen of smoke and strangely colored fumes, I saw a glowing sea of ​​liquid lava, agitated, boiling, shaking with convulsions.

As I watched, this molten sea swelled. The mysterious force that drove him was about to throw him out by force. It was time for the researcher to escape from his observation post. It was only seconds before the explosion came that the hole ejected its lava jet, throwing it hundreds of feet into the air. Large flaming masses fell back into the crater. The others, thrown farther away, rolled and descended the flanks of the mountain and plunged into the sea with a hiss of steam.

Three hours passed as I pursued my research, determined the timing of the explosions and collected samples of gases and minerals, studied the unforgettable views around me, and took pictures with my camera.

Feeling exhausted nearby. I gave my friends the pre-arranged signal with the hand lamp to take me out. The climb was painfully indescribable. My will, stretched to the point of refraction, abandoned me. The oxygen supply was depleted and I was forced to breathe air charged with sulfur fumes. As I was dragged across the edge of the crater into the fresh air, my congested lungs receded and I suffered severe bleeding.

When I recovered, I felt infinitely calm. After so much effort, so much nervous tension, I was happy to succeed in an endeavor that everyone thought was impossible.

After a while, accompanied by my friend Paul Muster, I had another exciting adventure on the flank of this same volcano. On one side is a slope, a giant sloping plain of ash, more than half a mile wide, known as the Sciara del Fuoco. Down it, rocks, slag and huge blocks of lava roll and head for the sea.

No one is approaching this slope. Ships circumnavigating the island are kept at a safe distance. However, Muster and I prepared to make the ascent with moving cameras. For this purpose I had prepared two sets of armor made of sheet steel. They, of course, would not protect us from the large lava blocks, but they would protect us from the small rocks that often fell in the showers.

We started the climb. After hours of torturous effort, we arrived at a place where we could set up our cameras to capture the rocks being thrown from the fire crater.

With exhausted movies, we prepared to go down the slope again. A huge block of lava placed deep in the ashes, some distance from the top, gave us temporary shelter.

Muster then noticed a black stone fifty feet away that interested him.

Leaving our shelter, he lay on his stomach and curled up to the huge ashes. As I watched his slow progress, admiring his courage, I heard a great noise rising from the edge of the sea. I swayed. Our friends at the foot of the mountain cried in terror and waved to the crater. I looked up just in time to see the giant rock itself coming off, describing a huge rainbow in the air, hitting the cinder, blowing them up like an explosion, and bouncing in the air again. Terrified, I saw that he was heading straight for us.

It was falling again and again. Then, with a hellish sound, he roared forty feet above our heads. The rush of air brought us down.

We could barely catch our breath when new trouble befell us. Moved by the successive tremors, the bed of ash, slag, and rocks covering the volcano’s hill began to move. Large tables separated and slid toward us.

Without consulting, Muster and I immediately came up with the same idea. With a single movement we freed ourselves from our armor, which we left to roll down the slope. Then, following the laws of gravity, we followed them.

I don’t know how long this crazy, mind-boggling skating lasted. By some miracle, we neither broke our backs nor broke our skulls. Torn by jagged ash and covered in blood, we reached the foot of the volcano. Here our friends took us by the hand, bandaged our wounds and congratulated us on our escape.

Cover from April 1933 Popular science.

Part of the text has been edited to meet modern standards and style.


From the archives: A 1930s adventure inside an active volcano

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