Reader Erica writes in to ask, “If you fell into a volcano, how would you die? Would you sink and drown in the lava or get burned to death on the surface before you could go under?”
Either way, it doesn’t sound pleasant, but drowning isn’t likely.
First, let’s get the lingo down. Magma is molten rock beneath the earth’s surface. Lava is magma that’s come above the surface, usually through volcanic eruption. If you fall into a volcano, it’s magma that’s your problem. Most of us probably think of lava in the sense of lava flows, but you could also fall into a lava lake, which is lava that pools in a vent, crater or a depression on certain types of volcano. For our purposes here, magma and lava are both bad news.
Magma and lava are molten rock, but they don’t behave exactly like other liquids. First, they’re very dense—two to three times as much as water and the human body. Because of that density difference, a body thrown into a volcano, whether it belongs to Gollum or a sacrificial virgin, is going to float. What’s more, both magma and lava can be thousands to millions of times more viscous than water, and won’t deform as much or as fast when you hit it and allow you to sink.
So, generally, the nature of lava/magma makes it unlikely that you’ll sink. With the right body, the right lava/magma and the right fall, though, there’s no guarantee. In the video below, volcano researcher Richard Roscoe tosses a ~65-pound box of trash ~260 feet into a lava lake, where it penetrates the lava’s crust and appears to sink.
If you don’t sink, though, burning to death isn’t necessarily the only other option (and if you did sink, you probably wouldn’t drown so much as quickly burn your lungs to nothing). It isn’t really an either/or question. You might burst into flames and burn when you hit the lava/magma’s surface (depending on the type, lava’s temperature ranges from approximately 1,200 to 2,200 degrees). You might also burn before you hit the lava/magma due to the radiant heat. Or you could asphyxiate or char your lungs due to the hot air and gases above the surface of the lake. (Of course, you can get pretty close to lava on the surface without burning, but the inside of a volcano is an enclosed space, so the heat can’t dissipate as much. The radiant heat is potentially much higher here.) There’s also the possibility of hitting a super dense substance at a high speed and simply breaking your neck or cracking your skull open. This is, unfortunately, one of those questions you can’t answer with much more than hypotheticals because testing those ideas would be very difficult—and insane.