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Our Sweet Little Volcano

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Barren Island in the Andamans has India’s only active volcano, but it’s harmless to a fault

End of October Mt Merapi in Indonesia erupted and even now spews its fury inter­mittently, tail-spinning that country into chaos.  That Indians are not bothered or alarmed is un­surprising. There is just one active volcano in the country and no one knows about it. Even if they knew, it wouldn’t matter. Because in volcanic terms, if Merapi is a roar, ours is not even a whimper.

The place where India’s volcano is situated is Barren Island, 135 km east of Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.  It is an extension of the volcanic chain in Indonesia, which has 200 to 240 active volca­noes.  D Chandrasekharam, professor in the Department of Earth Science, IIT, Bombay, has been researching volcanoes the world over. His team also monitors the Barren Island vol­cano, and was the first to camp on the island for four days.

Normally, there are no humans here and the only permanent res­idents of the island are goats. For a long time, it was believed that these goats survived on salt water. Chandrasekharam’s team was cu­rious to know how, because if goats could do it then so could humans. “On our last day on the island, we saw a few goats walking around,” says the professor. “We followed them to a freshwater spring. Volcanic ash ooz­es freshwater out... We published a paper on it, as numerous experi­ments on goat liver were being con­ducted in agricultural institutes in Port Blair and Rajasthan, virtually feeding salt water to the animals.”

The professor also researched a neighbouring volcano on Narcondam Island to see whether the 2004 tsunami had activated it. After the tsu­nami, the lo­cal police sta­tioned there had seen smoke rising from the vol­cano. Years later, when his team vis­ited the site, they discovered the smoke had arisen from a landslide, possibly caused by seismic activity.

Barren Island’s eruptions were recorded first in the 18th century.  Lately, it was dormant for a while, but after the 2004 tsunami, it became active again. Its tremors, though, bor­der zero on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. Indeed, so inconsequential is the volcano that there are now at­tempts to promote the place as a scu­ba diving destination.