I’ll Have The Man-Made Lava … On The Rocks

Basaltic lava flow poured from a Syracuse U gas-fired, tilt furnace. Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Karson

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the Lava Project going on at Syracuse University. The earth scientists who help run the program in upstate New York weren’t satisfied with studying lava by traveling to volcanoes in parts unknown. These geologists make their own lava, right on campus, in half-ton quantities by melting down crushed basalt in a high-temperature furnace. The project began, as I mention in my column, with the goal of creating a lava-flow sculpture—a giant piece of land art depicting what a person might experience in a real lava field. But it’s become much more than that, according to Jeffrey A. Karson, a Syracuse geologist and one of the leaders of the project. Academics who study lava elsewhere sometimes make their own lava on a very small scale, Karson tells me. We’re talking enough lava to fill a thimble. But lava usually flows in larger quantities than that, AND it sometimes flows to where people live, Karson says. Studying these larger flows will “help us predict how they’re going to flow, and hopefully, how to manage those flows,” he adds. One project the scientists at Syracuse have been working on is to study how lava interacts with ice. When Iceland’s volcano Grímsvötn erupted in May 2011, it famously spewed ash into the sky and disrupted flights in and out of Europe. But there were also some lava flows that occurred during the eruption, Karson says. Collaborating with Ben Edwards, a geologist at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, the Syracuse team have been pouring their molten lava onto ice beds and trying to reproduce some of the features that formed during that eruption. “We were able to learn quite a lot about the capability of lava to melt ice and snow, as well as the shapes lava flows take when they have interacted with ice and snow,” Karson explains. This shape-profiling might even one day come in handy when studying volcanic eruptions in space. “We can see the shape of lava flows on Mars,” Karson says. “So we might be able to remotely, just from the shape of the lava flows, predict something about the paleoclimate and distribution of ice and water on the surface of the Red Planet.” In the meantime, the researchers will keep having a blast, pouring lava in a parking lot on campus. For your viewing pleasure, I present one of a series of videos depicting the team’s lava flows. This one shows just what happens when basaltic lava is poured “on the rocks.”

Author: Lauren Wolf

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