This experiment will put your Diet-Coke-and-Mentos science fair volcano to shame. Geologists at the University of Buffalo are heating rocks for 4 hours at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to see what happens when volcanic lava meets water. What do they expect? Big explosions, of course.
The eruption at Eyjafjallajökull was more explosive due to the presence of water. Events like that don’t happen often, but there is a threat of a big impact when they do. As geologists, we want to understand the conditions that generate explosions — how much water do you need? How much time?
That’s project lead Ingo Sonder, a research scientist at UB’s Center for GeoHazards Studies,
salivating over the idea of discussing the possibility of recreating a small version of the violent 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. The geologists will make 10 gallons of molten lava at a time and pour it on water and ice at a geohazards field station about 40 miles south of Buffalo. This will be the largest lava/water experiment ever conducted and the team expects to repeat it dozens of times.
In the spirit of school science projects, the geologists will pour the molten lava through a 4-foot (1.2 meter) tube to simulate an underground river of lava. They will then pump water into the tube and measure reactions using microphones, thermal cameras and pressure sensors. With a budget far larger than high school science fair projects, the team will be protected from the heat by thermal reflective outfits.
While common, lava/water/ice reactions at volcanic sites are mysterious and unpredictable, says project geologist Alison Graettinger.
No one has done it before on this scale, and these lava-water interactions aren’t well understood. Sometimes when water and lava meet, the lava will appear to completely ignore the water. Sometimes, the lava will cool and form distinctive cracking patterns, or form interesting shapes like pillow lavas. And sometimes, the reaction is violent. Why?
The Geohazards Field Station where the research will be conducted sounds like an amusement park for geologists. Opened in 2012, the first experiment staged there involved detonating dynamite under gravel, ping pong and tennis balls to model how debris flies during a volcanic eruption. If you think blowing things up to simulate volcanoes is strictly a male endeavor, that project was also conducted by Alison Graettinger.
Once the testing is complete, the lava furnace will be available for use by others … hopefully with adult supervision.