Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Volcanology News

Homemade Lava Flows Fuse Science with Art on Video

An artist’s impulse to recreate natural landscapes leads to fiery scientific explorations that elucidate the behavior of erupting lava and the solid shapes it becomes.

By and Derek Sollosi

Eastern North America has no active volcanoes. But residents of upstate New York can see real-life lava flowing much as it does in Hawaii, Iceland, and Italy.

The glowing molten rock spills from an outdoor furnace in the Syracuse, N.Y., where an artist and scientist at a local university have teamed up to recreate natural lava flows. Their scorching outpourings provide a better understanding of the mechanics of volcanic eruptions and solidify into replicas of volcanic discharges that the duo would like to display in museums or other unlikely settings for puddles of lava.

The controlled pours allow the professors to study lava flows in detail without traveling to an active volcano. Their open-air lab also permits them to share the experience of witnessing a lava flow with area students.

“There are no volcanic rocks in New York State, and there are certainly no active volcanoes,” Syracuse University geologist Jeff Karson told Eos. “Most kids from our urban schools here—they’re never going to go see an active volcano in Hawaii or Iceland or Italy. But they can see one here.”

Artist’s Vision

The Syracuse University Lava Project started in 2010 when Bob Wysocki, a sculptor who is also on the Syracuse University faculty, approached Karson with the idea of creating natural-scale lava flows from real volcanic rock. After coming up with a source of affordable basalt and a way to heat it past its melting point, the two professors started pouring small amounts of homemade lava inside Syracuse’s Comstock Art Facility.

Since then, Wysocki and Karson have scaled up their operation and are now the only lab in the world that routinely creates lava flows with hundreds of kilograms of melted rock at a time. Their experiments allow them to generate lava structures that mimic those found in nature, they said.

Arianna Soldati, a Ph.D. candidate in volcanology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is contemplating joining Karson and Wysocki as a postdoctoral researcher. During a visit to their lab in April, Soldati was excited to see a lava tube develop during one of their experiments.

Although she had seen lava tubes in the field, she had never previously watched one form. “One thing is learning in a textbook how that happens; another one is seeing it happen within 10–15 minutes,” Soldati said. “That’s been amazing!”

Scientific Exploration 

By documenting each experiment’s variables, such as lava temperature, gas content, and speed of flow,  the Syracuse lava experimenters are illuminating the conditions under which volcanic features like lava pillows form.

“Most lava flows—we never see them flowing,” Karson said. “So you never really know how they got in those shapes. All we’re left with is the final form of the lava. So we’re learning a lot about how to decode or how to understand what these shapes mean.”

The team has now poured homemade lava nearly a thousand times, published more than five papers on the science of lava flows, and given more than 20 presentations on their results at scientific meetings. They’ve also demonstrated that video and infrared data can be used to quantify the behavior of active lava flows.

From Mimicry to Surprise

Some of their experiments have recreated lava features observed in eruptions. For instance, when they poured lava directly onto a block of ice in several 2015 trials, the resulting lava formations mimicked many details of lava from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions in Iceland. That study showed experimentally for the first time that Limu o Pele, which are glass bubbles formed by lava flows, and other features can be created when lava spills onto ice.

Wysocki’s artistic goal is to create real lava flows in places you wouldn’t expect them to be. He has already poured lava at an art exposition in Toronto, Canada, and aims to create lava landscapes for museums. But he also wants to bring the forms to other unlikely places, he said, such as New York’s Central Park or the middle of a desert.

“I like the idea of a geologist a couple thousand years from now walking out there saying, ‘This doesn’t belong out here, but this is a lava flow.’ And my mother could also go out there and say, ‘It’s beautiful,’” Wysocki explained. “What I really want to do is make art that appeals to everyone.”

—Lauren Lipuma (@Tenacious_She), Contributing Writer; and Derek Sollosi, Video Producer

Citation: Lipuma, L., and D. Sollosi (2017), Homemade lava flows fuse science with art on video, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO077157. Published on 29 June 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0