Extraordinary Earth: How Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano helps cool the planet

Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano is one of the world’s most active volcanoes

March 2, 2020, 8:17 AM

In the countdown to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, “Good Morning America” and our partner National Geographic present “Extraordinary Earth: 20 in 2020.” We will visit 20 amazing places around the globe to learn about our evolving planet. This week, ABC News' Will Reeve reports live for "GMA" from the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua to see how one of the world’s most active volcanoes helps our planet.

Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

PHOTO: Lava inside the Masaya volcano bubbles from the crater, near Managua, Nicaragua.
Lava inside the Masaya volcano bubbles from the crater, near Managua, Nicaragua.
Roberto Destarac/Shutterstock

In thirty years, it’s erupted 13 times.

PHOTO: A couple looks at clouds erupting from Masaya Volcano, 13 miles from Managua, Nicaragua, April 23, 2001.
A couple looks at clouds erupting from Masaya Volcano, 13 miles from Managua, Nicaragua, April 23, 2001.
Javier Galeano/AP

And just five years ago, an extraordinary lava lake was formed with the fastest churning lava on record.

PHOTO: A tourist takes pictures of a lava lake inside the crater of the Masaya Volcano in Masaya, May 19, 2016, in Nicaragua.
A tourist takes pictures of a lava lake inside the crater of the Masaya Volcano in Masaya, May 19, 2016, in Nicaragua.
Inti Ocon/AFP via Getty Images

“It sort of volcanoes within a volcano,” said National Geographic Geology Expert Maya Wei-Haas. “It’s about four miles by seven miles across. And so Masaya actually it’s one of the few volcanoes in the world that hosts a lava lake, which is essentially a roiling pit of molten rock.”

But along with its wonders and beauty, the temperamental volcano, which is dubbed the “mouth of hell” can also be quite terrifying.

PHOTO: A lava lake boils in the Santiago crater of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, May 3, 2016.
A lava lake boils in the Santiago crater of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, May 3, 2016.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Satellite imaging from Penn State University found that Masaya has a reservoir of magma almost two miles from the crater, which means that it could erupt without any warning. In 2016, scientists installed Wifi throughout the volcano to monitor any signs of eruption in real time.

PHOTO: Scientists measure the temperature of the lava lake on April, 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua, in April 2016.
Scientists measure the temperature of the lava lake on April, 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua, in April 2016.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Some experts believe the destructive force of an eruption could stretch almost 19 miles, reaching as far as Nicaragua’s capital and putting millions of lives at risk.

PHOTO: The lights of the city can been seen from the Masaya Volcano on April, 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua, April 2016.
The lights of the city can been seen from the Masaya Volcano on April, 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua, April 2016.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

So monitoring for early warning signs is a high stakes effort. And Jeffrey B. Johnson, a volcanologist and a National Geographic explorer, has pioneered technology that lets experts "listen" to lava.

"Volcanoes like to speak in sounds low frequency sounds that humans can't perceive, called infrasound," said Johnson. "So we develop the sensors that we can deploy to listen to the volcano talk to us."

The Masaya volcano emits over 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. In fact, each year the nearly 1,500 volcanoes around the world put 130 to 140 million tons CO2 into our atmosphere.

PHOTO: A man on horseback rides past Masaya Volcano, a shield volcano south of Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 15, 2012.
A man on horseback rides past Masaya Volcano, a shield volcano south of Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 15, 2012.
Kike Calvo/AP

The emissions, along with the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the volcano, have fed into a long-running myth that volcanoes release more damaging carbon dioxide than humans. But according to the Deep Carbon Observatory Program that’s not true.

PHOTO: Steam reflects the light from hot lava inside the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua.
Steam reflects the light from hot lava inside the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua.
Tanguy de Saint-Cyr/Shutterstock

Their report found over the past 100 years that human carbon emissions have been forty to 100 times greater than emissions from volcanoes.

PHOTO:Gases rises from the lava lake at the Masaya Volcano, during a day in April 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua.
Gases rises from the lava lake at the Masaya Volcano, during a day in April 2016 in Masaya, Nicaragua.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

“It’s a common misconception that volcanoes somehow drive our current changes in climate,” said Haas. “It’s true that volcanoes do passively release carbon dioxide over time. And they’ve been doing this since our planet’s infancy. But they’re a natural part of the carbon cycle.”

Surprisingly, in terms of climate impact, volcanic eruptions actually have a temporary cooling effect on the planet by releasing a cloud of ash and dust into the stratosphere that reflects the sun back into space.

PHOTO: Tourists pose for photos next to the Masaya volcano crater at Masaya Volcano National Park, Nov. 10, 2012.
Tourists pose for photos next to the Masaya volcano crater at Masaya Volcano National Park, Nov. 10, 2012.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The same thing happened at Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines after it erupted in 1991. Sulfuric Dioxide got into the atmosphere and spread further out around the world and caused a few degrees of cooling over a couple of years.

That's one of the many remarkable qualities of volcanoes that makes Masaya such a dazzling and captivating part of our extraordinary Earth.

PHOTO: The lava pool glows from the crater of the Masaya Volcano at twilight, Masaya, Nicaragua.
The lava pool glows from the crater of the Masaya Volcano at twilight, Masaya, Nicaragua.
Francisco Blanco/Shutterstock

“I think there’s a certain thing about volcanoes and volcanic lakes in particular that just kind of capture the imagination,” said Haas. “These are pretty spectacular systems to take in.”

MORE: How climate change affects coffee bean production in Nicaragua

VIDEO: How climate change affects coffee bean production in Nicaragua
Many coffee drinkers don't think twice about where their coffee comes from, but it's a process that often starts in Nicaragua, where climate whiplash has been affecting production.

MORE: The technology that helps keep sea turtles thriving in Nicaragua

VIDEO: The technology that helps keep sea turtles thriving in Nicaragua
As environmental threats increase, conservation efforts are helping protect sea turtles in Nicaragua, where their numbers are dwindling because of human threats.
Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events