The Heart of Erebus

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5). Students learn about Mt. Erebus, the world’s most southern active volcano. Mt. Erebus is located on Ross Island, off the coast of Antarctica. As usual, we recommend using the related activities (see below) to support student comprehension.

Modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. Students in grades K-1 are first introduced to volcanoes in general, and then specifically Mt. Erebus. Students in grades 2-3 focus on Mt. Erebus in a simplified manner. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Reading strategy templates and related activities provide tips for integrating this story with your science and literacy instruction.

Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students? Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

The Heart of Erebus

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.5

Just off the continent of Antarctica is Ross Island. The tiny spot of land is home to a strange and lovely mountain named Erebus (eruh-buhs). Near the mountain’s peak are some of the most unusual formations found anywhere on the planet. There are caves carved from ice, frozen columns of steam, and sharp, jagged, black rocks, poking up from beneath the ice. Smoke and steam fill the air. Sometimes the ground rumbles beneath your feet. Steaming, red-hot rocks might fly over your head and crash onto the ice all around you.

As you might guess, this isn’t an ordinary mountain. Erebus is a volcano. It is the most-southern active volcano in the world! Scientists live and work near the volcano’s summit at a place called the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory. Dr. Philip Kyle is one of these scientists. He wants to understand what this volcano can tell us about Earth’s insides.

Living and Working on a Volcano

How do scientists like Dr. Kyle get to Erebus? First, they travel to Antarctica and a research station called McMurdo. From there, it isn’t that far to Ross Island and the volcano. While they are there, they live and work on the side of the volcano itself!

The research station, called MEVO for short, is just two simple huts. One hut is for living and working. The other is used as a workshop and a place to store equipment. Helicopters and snowmobiles take scientists from the station most of the way to the crater rim. Then they walk the remaining short distance. But this short trip up the sides of Erebus transports the scientists into what must seem like a different world.

Walking on the Edge of a Different World

First there are ice caves, carved out by hot steam escaping from vents in the volcano’s sides. Dr. Kyle says the caves are great places to explore and photograph, and they stay surprisingly warm. Next are the towering pillars of frozen steam. Hot steam escaping directly into the air can freeze and create a sort of reverse icicle pointing toward the sky. Some of these steam pillars are enormous, and last for many years.

But the real wonder is inside the volcano’s crater itself. There you’ll find a lake of molten rock! This lava lake sometimes spits out “lava bombs,” or rocks that whiz overhead when a pocket of gas suddenly bubbles up from inside the lake.

An Unusual Volcano

Erebus is unusual in many ways. The rocks found there are like rocks found near volcanoes in Africa. But this seems strange. How can a volcano in Antarctica be like volcanoes thousands of miles to the north?

Volcanoes like Mt. Erebus and its African cousins arise from long cracks in the Earth called rifts. These cracks form when the land is stretched and torn by forces from below. Think of the way dough might stretch and even split if you pull it from two sides, and you’ll have a good picture of a rift in the Earth. The volcanoes in Africa arise from a place called the Great East Africa Rift Valley. Mt. Erebus rises out of a similar rift. However, this crack in the Earth’s crust is covered year-round by sea and ice.

The Fiery Heart of a Volcano

It’s not just the African cousins that make Erebus unusual. The lava lake also makes Erebus unique, Dr. Kyle says. There are only a few volcanoes on Earth that have one. For the scientists, the lake is like a window into the Earth’s insides.

The lake is made up of molten rock called magma. The lake bubbles and sometimes shoots out lava bombs. Scientists study the lake to learn about what’s happening inside the volcano. Deep below is a place called the magma chamber. Dr. Kyle calls it “the heart of the volcano.” It’s this heart that he most wants to understand.

Liquid Rock and Solid Ice

How can a place as cold as Antarctica have volcanoes that erupt? The heat of volcanoes has nothing to do with the weather. Instead, a volcano’s heat comes from deep inside the Earth. There the temperature is hot enough to melt rock. When the magma finds a crack or a weak spot in the Earth’s crust above, it pushes its way up to the surface.

Weather doesn’t affect the volcano, but it does affect the scientists who work there. Storms can cause 100-miles-per-hour winds! The high altitude also affects the scientists. The higher you go in the atmosphere, the thinner the air gets. This makes it harder to breathe and can even make you sick. The scientists deal with this by moving up the volcano in stages. They spend several days at a lower camp and then slowly move higher and higher. This gives their bodies time to adjust to the conditions.

Even though it is a hard place to work, Dr. Kyle is looking forward to the next field season. It will be his 37th on the mountain! He’s most excited about a new way of “looking” inside the volcano using explosions. The explosions create waves that travel through the mountain and bounce off whatever might be inside. It’s a little like the sound waves bats and dolphins use to find objects in the air and water. The scientists hope that this will help them “see” inside the magma chamber. It would give Dr. Kyle his first real look into the heart of Erebus.


altitude – the height above sea level

magma – melted rock beneath the Earth’s surface

rift – a large crack in the Earth’s surface that forms when the land is stretched and torn

transport – to move from one place to another

unusual – not ordinary

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.9) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.7). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version of this article for grades:
Print book versions of this article for grades:

Notes for assembling the books:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book.

To assemble the books this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom.) Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

The Heart of Erebus

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page. Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

Literacy Set
This set includes three levels of e-books and foldable PDF booklets for grades K-1, 2-3, 4-5, plus an article on the reading strategy of engaging students in nonfiction text through a technique called FACT-It, and a printable PDF FACT-It activity template for students.

Reading Strategy Templates

This article provides an opportunity for students in grades 2-5 to practice identifying facts, asking questions, making connections, and reflecting with content text. The following template can be used in conjunction with “The Heart of Erebus” and “Mt. Erebus: A Surprising Volcano.” For more information about this strategy, please see “Engaging Students in Nonfiction Text.”

F.A.C.T. It
This template aids students as they identify facts, ask questions, make connections, and reflect on text. Best for students in grades 2-5.

Related Activities

Modeling Volcanoes
Models volcano formation using gelatin and colored water.

Explosive or Effusive?
Students investigate why some volcanoes erupt explosively while others have passive lava flows.

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site. The content of this page was updated in June 2020.

Copyright December 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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