The volcano has been continuously active since 1972 and is the site of a volcanic observatory run by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The crater is home to one of three permanent lava lakes in the world.
Mount Erebus was discovered in 1841 by polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross (whose ships were named Erebus and Terror; these ships were also used by Sir John Franklin on his disastrous search for the Northwest Passage), and first climbed (to the rim) by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his party in 1908. The ships and the volcano were all named for Erebus, a primordial Greek god, the son of Chaos.
On November 28 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 with 257 people on board on a sightseeing trip over Antarctica crashed into the northern slope of Mount Erebus. The crash totally destroyed the aircraft; a recovery team spent over a week camped at the crash site performing body recovery and accident investigation work. The remains of 213 passengers were recovered and identified; the bodies or body parts of the remaining 44 were never properly identified.
The official accident report attributed the disaster to the decision of the captain in descending to a height below the approved level, in cloud, and continuing at that height when the crew was not sure of the plane's position. However, a Royal Commission of Inquiry disagreed with the accident investigators and attributed blame to the airline company for not advising a change in the flight computer settings and in not properly training the crew in Antarctic flying conditions. The Commission of Inquiry concluded that the pilot had continued flying towards the mountain under visual flight rules because he was in clear air but was unaware that the mountain was directly in front of him because polar lighting caused a whiteout situation that made the mountain invisible. The optical illusion that the whiteout caused gave the impression that the plane was flying over a wide flat landscape, as would be expected had the plane been flying on the original flight path; consequently, the crew did not detect that the new flight path programmed into their flight navigation computer was flying them directly at Mount Erebus.
A memorial cross was later erected on an outcrop of rock that overlooks the accident site.