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Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) volcano, Réunion Island, Indian Ocean

February 22nd, 2008 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

Piton de la Fournaise (French: "Peak of the Furnace") is a shield volcano on the eastern side of Réunion island (a French territory) in the Indian Ocean. It is currently one of the most active volcanoes in the world, along with Kīlauea in the Hawaiian Islands (Pacific Ocean) Stromboli, Etna (Italy) and Mount Erebus in Antarctica. A recent eruption began in August 2006 and ended in January 2007. The volcano erupted again in February 2007, and most recently on 2 April 2007.

Piton de la Fournaise is often known locally as le Volcan (The Volcano); it is a major tourist attraction on Réunion island.

The top part of the volcano is occupied by the Enclos Fouqué, a caldera 8 kilometres (5 miles) wide. High cliffs known as remparts form the caldera's rim. The caldera is breached to the southeast into the sea. It is also unstable and in the initial stages of failure and will eventually collapse into the Indian Ocean. Whether it will generate a so called "mega-tsunami" is controversial. There is evidence on the submerged flanks and abyssal plain of earlier failures. The lower slopes are known as the Grand Brûlé ("Great Burnt"). Most lava eruptions are confined to the caldera.

Inside the caldera is a 400 metre high lava shield known as Dolomieu. Atop the lava shield are Bory Crater (Cratère Bory) and Dolomieu Crater (Cratère Dolomieu), which is by far the wider of the two.

Many craters and spatter cones can be found inside the caldera and the outer flanks of the volcano. At the beginning of the path that leads to the summit, there lies a noticeable small crater known as formica leo, named for its similar shape to the pitfall built by the antlion.

Some of the beaches there are of a greenish colour, because of the olivine sand resulting from picrite basalt lavas. The Grand Brûlé is formed from solidified lava flows accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years; the most recent ones are often the darkest and most vegetation-free, while older ones can be covered by dense wild vegetation.

The volcano is over 530,000 years old, and for most of its history, its flows have intermingled with those from Piton des Neiges, a larger, older and heavily eroded extinct volcano which forms the northwest two-thirds of Réunion Island. There were three episodes of caldera collapses 250,000, 65,000 and 5,000 years ago. The volcano was formed by the Réunion hotspot, which is believed to have been active for the past 65 million years. There is evidence for explosive eruptions in the past. One explosive eruption about 4,700 years ago may have had a VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) of 5, which is the same as the 18 May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Most eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise are of the Hawaiian style: fluid basaltic lava flowing out with fire fountaining at the vent. Occasionally, phreatic eruptions (groundwater steam-generated eruptions) occur. Lava flows crossing the Grand Brûlé occasionally reach the sea, with spectacular results. Piton de la Fournaise is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, with more than 150 recorded eruptions since the 17th century.

Eruptions within the caldera do not cause much devastation, because the caldera is uninhabited and little infrastructure exists apart from the highway. Lava flows are generally confined to the caldera. However, lava flows have been known to cross the N2 highway; areas where the road was destroyed by the eruption are signposted with the year of eruption after the road is rebuilt. In the early 2000s, the highway thus was destroyed once or more times a year; road engineering services then wait for the lava to cool off and build another stretch of road. It is worth noting that for months after an eruption, the core of the lava flows can still be hot enough to steam in rainy weather.

Eruptions outside of the caldera can pose serious hazards to the population, but are rare. Only six eruptions outside of the caldera have occurred, most recently in 1986. The village of Piton-Sainte-Rose was evacuated in 1977 before it was inundated by a lava flow which destroyed several buildings. The lava flow crossed the highway and surrounded the local church, entered the front door, then stopped without destroying the building. The front entrance was later cleared out, and the church was brought back into service under the name of Notre-Dame des Laves ("Our Lady of the Lavas").

[Source: Wikipedia]

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