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Volcano Spews Blue Fire While Sulfur Miners Work Feet Away

Stunning new photos capture the beauty and peril of sulfur mining.

08/07/2016 5:40 AM AEST | Updated July 8, 2016 05:40

Mining for sulfur is dangerous work.

New photos of Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia, show sulfur ― which can combust on contact with air ― erupting into dazzling blue flames as miners work nearby. The images, from photographer Tomohiro Ohsumi, capture both the spectacular beauty and constant peril of one of the world’s last traditional sulfur mines. 

Ijen is a “quietly active” volcano that spews sulfur dioxide and other gases into the air. Workers use stone and metal pipes to trap the gases, which condense into a reddish liquid and eventually harden into pure sulfur.

It’s taxing work. Photos show miners carrying blocks of raw sulfur in baskets to processing plants where they’re broken into smaller chunks and purified into a liquid. The processed sulfur is used in a range of industrial processes, from vulcanizing rubber for tires to bleaching sugar. It’s also a key ingredient in fertilizer. 

Surrounding the workers is a swirling mist of hydrogen sulphide and sulfur dioxide. The latter is a dangerous compound that, in high concentrations, can burn skin; damage eyes, nose and lungs; and eventually, dissolve teeth. Over the last 40 years, 74 miners at Ijen have died from inhaling noxious fumes, according to the BBC.

Yet workers say they depend on the mine for their livelihoods. 

“There are many big mountains but only one gives us the sulfur we need,” a miner named Sulaiman told the BBC in 2011.

You can check out photos of sulfur mines at Ijen below: 

  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A mountain guide takes a photograph of ignited sulfuric gas, known as blue fire or blue frame, as it rises from the Ijen volcano at night in Banyuwangi, East Java, Indonesia.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Miners extract lumps of sulfur from the Ijen volcano at night.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A miner uses a metal pole to extract lumps of sulfur as sulfuric gas rises from the Ijen volcano.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A miner carries baskets of sulfur as sulfuric gas rises from the volcano.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Workers break up a sheet of sulfur from the ground for collection at a processing facility in Banyuwangi, East Java, Indonesia.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Pieces of sulfur sit in a pile at a processing facility in Banyuwangi.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A miner carries baskets of sulfur at the Ijen volcano at night.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A worker breaks up a sheet of sulfur from the ground for collection at a processing facility in Banyuwangi.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Filtered liquid sulfur pours from a funnel at a sulfur processing facility in Banyuwangi.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A miner uses a hammer to break lumps of sulfur at the Ijen volcano.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Ignited sulfuric gas, known as blue fire or blue frame, rises from ceramic pipes at the Ijen volcano at night.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Miners work as sulfuric gas rises from the volcano.
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    Miners extract lumps of sulfur amid swirling clouds of sulfur dioxide and other gases. 
  • Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
    A worker observes liquid sulfur being filtered at a sulfur processing facility in Banyuwangi.
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