15 Facts About Lava

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Every day, the news is filled with images of the lava flows coming from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Previously obscure terms like laze (lava and haze), vog (volcanic and smog/fog), and pahoehoe and a'a (types of lava flows) are becoming part of the lexicon. But how much do you really know about hot molten rock? Here are 15 fascinating facts about lava.

1. LAVA IS MAGMA ABOVE GROUND.

Magma describes molten rock when it's below the surface, while lava describes molten rock after it erupts. It might seem like a trivial distinction, but there are differences, especially after the liquid cools down. Both magma and lava produce igneous rocks when they cool, but underground magma tends to cool slowly and produce gigantic mineral crystals in a subset of igneous rock called plutonic. On the surface, lava tends to cool rapidly, creating tiny mineral crystals in a subset called volcanic. This means that the same source material can produce two different rocks depending on where it cooled; for example, granite and rhyolite are considered similar, except granite is plutonic, being formed underground, while rhyolite, created on the surface, is volcanic.

2. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA …

lava from an erupting volcano flows and explodes
Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images

The vast majority of lava out there falls into one of three types: mafic, intermediate, and felsic. They're also called basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic lavas, respectively. (There are other types, but they're very rare.) These three lavas are distinguished by their mineral composition, viscosity, and the amount of volcanic gases—like water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—dissolved in the liquid.

An estimated 90 percent of lava flows are mafic, consisting of around 50 percent silica (SiO2). This kind of lava has the lowest viscosity and gas content; it's the classic bright-red flow you probably picture when you think of lava. Intermediate lava, around 60 percent silica, has higher gas content and viscosity, causing it to explode. Mount St. Helens was an intermediate eruption. Even more explosive—but rare—are felsic lavas, which are 70 percent silica and have the highest gas content and highest viscosity, often exploding and producing bits of rock called tephra.

3. … AND DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA FLOWS.

Specifically, there are different kinds of mafic lava flow. The major types on the surface are a’a and pahoehoe, two terms that come from Hawaiian. A’a flows rapidly and loses heat, which increases the viscosity and creates a distinctive rough surface on the cooled lava flow as pieces start breaking off; the word may be from the Hawaiian for burn or stony. In contrast, pahoehoe is smooth and is frequently described as looking like a twisted rope because it moves more slowly and has a lower viscosity, so any breaks are quickly healed. The word may ultimately derive from the Hawaiian for paddle, to describe the smooth ripples paddles create in water. When an eruption occurs under the ocean, a third type called pillow appears. Aside from being underwater, pillow flows are frequently difficult to distinguish from pahoehoe.

4. THE SHAPE OF A VOLCANO IS INFLUENCED BY THE KIND OF LAVA INSIDE IT.

The more liquid mafic lava forms broad, gently sloped shield volcanoes, such as the main volcanoes on the Hawaiian islands. But that's not the only type of volcano this kind of lava can produce: Silica-rich mafic rocks can spray out in the air dramatically, landing back in the area they erupted from to create either a spatter cone, when the lava lands and remains liquid, welding the lava together, or a cinder cone, when the lava solidifies in the air and lands as rock. And if the lava comes from large cracks, it may form flood basalts (as mafic lava is also called).

The more viscous intermediate and felsic lavas produce stratovolcanoes (also known as composite), which are the classic volcano of popular imagination, like Mount Fuji, that build up steeper slopes.

Even more felsic lava leads to calderas, which are areas that erupted so violently the volcano collapsed into the now-emptied magma chamber, creating a large depression in the ground. (You may have even visited one: Yellowstone National Park, which sits above a dormant supervolcano, has a large caldera.) Very felsic lavas can also produce lava domes, which are formed when lava that has been degassed before an eruption piles up around the vent; according to the University of Oregon, the domes can occur in the craters or on the sides of stratovolcanoes and calderas—and sometimes even away from volcanoes altogether.

5. HUMANS HAVE BEEN FASCINATED BY LAVA FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS …

The earliest depiction of a volcanic eruption was thought to be 8500 years old, located on a mural in the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, in what is now Turkey. (Some say it's not an eruption at all, but a leopard skin.) But there may be documentation of an eruption that's many thousands of years older. The cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, located 22 miles from France's Bas-Vivarais volcanic field, date to about 37,000 years ago. Alongside the standard cave-painting animals, there are also unusual markings that look like sprays, which led some French researchers to speculate that these are likely depictions of a previously unknown volcanic eruption.

6. … AND HAVE TRIED TO STOP IT FOR CENTURIES.

lava flows through metal fence
USGS via Getty Images

The earliest known attempt to stop the flow of lava was in 1669, when Mount Etna erupted on the island of Sicily. Diego Pappalardo of Catania led a group of men to open a hole in the hardened side of the lava flow; the idea was that the lava would flow out the side hole, away from their town. This was at first a success—at least for the residents of Catania. But was a potential disaster for the people of Paterno, who realized the rerouted flow was now threatening their town. They chased Diego and his men away. The hole they'd made in the hardened lava soon clogged, and the lava resumed its original path towards Catania, where it met the city wall. The wall apparently lasted several days before it failed, and lava entered the city. Sicilians had better luck in 1983 and 1992, when their attempts to divert lava flow from Mt. Etna using earthen banks and concrete blocks were moderately successful. Iceland, too, managed to contain some damage from a 1973 eruption by spraying lava with seawater.

7. WE TRIED TO BOMB LAVA INTO SUBMISSION.

In 1935, the U.S. Army bombed a lava channel on Hawaii's Mauna Loa to divert the flow heading towards Hilo. It didn't work. They tried again in 1942 during another eruption of Mauna Loa—and it still didn't work. However, a few days after the 1942 bombing, there was a natural collapse on the volcano that brought the lava flow to a halt. In theory, bombing a channel can make the lava slow down and do less damage to cities because lava moves fastest when contained in a channel or a lava tube, while lava that flows in a broad fan is much slower and cools faster.

This knowledge inspired yet more experimentation three decades later, in 1975 and 1976, when the Air Force dropped aerial ordnance on ancient lava fields on Mauna Loa to see what would happen. They found that spatter cones were particularly vulnerable to bombing. In a report, the Air Force concluded, "Modern aerial bombing has a substantial probability of success for diversion of lava from most expected types of eruptions on Mauna Loa's Northeast Rift Zone, if Hilo is threatened and if Air Force assistance is requested." Despite this assertion, the technique has never been attempted again.

8. THE CAUSE OF HAWAII'S VOLCANISM IS MYSTERIOUS.

In general, volcanoes form near the edges of plates and are side effects of plate tectonics, but Hawaii is thousands of miles from a plate boundary. To explain this and similar anomalies, geologists proposed the "hot spot" hypothesis. The idea is that a plume of extremely hot material comes from the core-mantle boundary and shoots up, punching a hole in the crust and creating islands like Hawaii. Later refinements to this theory proposed that the plume is more or less stationary, and as the crust moves over the plume it creates features like the Hawaiian island chain.

But as Earth magazine explains, this has proven easy to propose and nearly impossible to verify. Critics complain that as contradicting data has emerged, the hot spot hypothesis has become so flexible that it has stopped actually being useful. Instead, a new hypothesis ties these mid-plate features to plate tectonics. In the case of Hawaii, because the Pacific plate is subducting, or going beneath, other tectonic plates in both Asia and parts of North America, it's starting to crack—and thanks to local mantle conditions the Hawaiian volcanoes are forming. Even as the eruption is nightly news, the cause of volcanism in Hawaii is undergoing renewed debate.

9. IT'S PRETTY EASY TO OUTRUN A LAVA FLOW …

people on road in hawaii taking photos of lava from kilauea volcano
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, researchers from the University of Bristol looked at volcano fatalities between the years 1500 and 2017. Of more than 214,000 deaths they recorded, only 659 could be attributed to lava flows, because, they wrote, "lavas normally advance slowly, allowing escape.” The USGS says a typical mafic lava on a gentle slope flows at less than 1 mph; steep slopes and lava tubes increase that speed.

According to the Bristol researchers, what you really need to watch out for are explosions. "Sudden outbursts of very fluid lavas can cause loss of life," they wrote. "Deaths and injuries typically arise if escape routes are cut off, or as small explosions occur through interaction with water, vegetation or fuel."

Most fatalities could be attributed to "pyroclastic density currents"—basically hot gas, rocks, and ash moving at high speed—which were responsible for 60,000 deaths, or volcano-related tsunamis, which killed about the same number of people. Another nearly 50,000 people were killed by lahars, or volcanic mudflows of water and debris. The remaining deaths were caused by a mix of secondary lahars (which occur years after an eruption), tephra, avalanches, landslides, gas, flying killer rocks called ballistics, and—in nine cases—lightning.

10. … BUT THEY CAN STILL BE DEADLY.

The single largest loss of life from lava occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 when an estimated 100 to 130 people were killed by lava when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted. Situated near the city of Goma, the eruption displaced 250,000 people (another 150,000 are thought to have stayed) as lava flowed through the city streets and cut off parts of the town, including covering an estimated 80 percent of the airstrip at the local airport. Beyond its proximity to a major city, Nyiragongo is deadly because it's believed to have some of—if not the—fastest lava on Earth. A 1977 eruption of Nyiragongo created lava—an extremely low-viscosity mafic type—that traveled at an estimated 40 mph. The 2002 flow is thought to have been slightly slower.

11. BLUE LAVA ISN'T REAL …

Frequently making the rounds on social media are images of "blue lava" from the Indonesian volcano Kawah Ijen. Sadly, the amazing blue glow isn't actual lava. Instead it's caused by sulfuric gases that emerge at high temperatures and ignite, which then can flow down as a glowing liquid sulfur. Blue flames caused by ignited methane gas from burned plant matter are appearing in Hawaii as well.

12. … BUT BLACK LAVA IS.

The coolest (by temperature) lava in the world is at Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania. Lava generally ranges from 1300°F–2300°F (700°C –1250°C), depending on its composition. But the lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is only around 1000°F. It's also the world's only known active carbonatite volcano (a carbonatite is an igneous rock that's mostly carbonate minerals), which means instead of flowing red, the lava flows black and then solidifies white. The ultimate origin of the weird lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is still a matter of debate, but because it's responsible for much of the world's rare-earth element production, it's increasingly being studied for economic reasons.

13. THERE'S A RESTAURANT THAT USES LAVA TO COOK FOOD.

If you find yourself wanting a unique experience on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, there's a restaurant called El Diablo. What makes it unique is that the grill is placed on top of a 6-foot deep hole with lava at the bottom (although it's considered safe as the last eruption was in 1824). Dining here might be a better choice than trying to roast marshmallows over a volcanic vent, which the USGS strongly advised people not do, noting that even if it weren't dangerous to be near a vent, the sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide likely being emitted would make your marshmallow taste awful.

14. MARS MAY HAVE LAVA CHANNELS.

Whether the deep channels on the surface of Mars were caused by lava or water is hotly debated by researchers. It may seem like it would be easy to tell the difference, but in 2010, researchers analyzed a lava flow from 1859 in Hawaii and found features that looked very similar to channels on Mars that were thought to be carved by water. They concluded that fast and low-viscosity lavas could create many of these features that we thought were water-made. A 2017 study came to a similar conclusion on a different part of Mars, saying that what's traditionally seen as signs of rivers and lakes in one region "can be better explained by fluid lava flooding the channels and filling pre-existing impact craters."

15. CLEANING UP LAVA CAN TAKE MONTHS OR YEARS—IF IT HAPPENS AT ALL.

lava cools as it flows across a field in Hawaii
USGS via Getty Images

Returning a landscape to normalcy up after a volcano can be difficult. If a lot of ash has built up, proper care must be taken to dispose of the ash at a dedicated site all while avoiding inhaling glass, fine silica dust, and toxic gases into the lungs, which could lead to serious illness. Lava is even more difficult. According to Accuweather, contractors rarely fully remove the hardened lava, which can take months or years to completely cool. Even then, removing the lava—which is now rock—requires specialized tools. "In the Hawaii case, we are talking about lava that is incredibly sticky and viscous, and that is nearly 2000°F," University at Buffalo volcanologist Greg Valentine told Digital Trends. "No house can stand up to that, and even if it could, it would be partly or completely buried when everything is over." For these reasons, most people just start anew.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

iStock.com/Thithawat_s
iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

This Live Stream Lets You Eavesdrop on Endangered Killer Whales' Conversations

iStock.com/Serega
iStock.com/Serega

Southern resident killer whales, which are usually found off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, are an endangered species. If you're lucky, though, you might be able to hear a pod of the killer whales chattering away from the comfort of your own home. A website spotted by The Kansas City Star lets you live stream the calls of killer whales from your phone or laptop. Dubbed Orcasound, it uses hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up oceanic sounds from two areas off the coast of Washington.

On the website, listeners can choose between the two locations. One is the Orcasound Lab in Haro Strait, which is situated off the coast of Washington's San Juan Islands—the "summertime habitat" of this specific ecotype of whale, according to the website. The other location is Bush Point at the entrance to Puget Sound, where the whales pass through about once a month in search of salmon. However, that hydrophone is currently being repaired.

So what do orcas sound like? They're loud, and they do a whole lot of whistling, whining, and clicking. You can hear a snippet of what that sounds like in a four-minute podcast uploaded to the Orcasound site.

There’s no guarantee you’ll hear an orca, though. "Mostly you'll hear ships," the website notes, but there's also a chance you'll hear humpbacks in the fall and male harbor seals in the summer.

The live stream isn't just for educational purposes. It also serves as a citizen science project to help researchers continue their studies of southern resident killer whales, which are in danger of starvation as Chinook salmon, their main food source, die off.

The makers of Orcasound are urging listeners to email ihearsomething@orcasound.net anytime they hear killer whales or "other interesting sounds." They can also log their observations in a shared Google spreadsheet. Eventually, developers of the site hope to roll out a button that listeners can click when they hear a whale, to make the process easier for people to get involved.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

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