Space & Innovation

These Guys Create Volcanoes in Buffalo to Understand Eruptions in Iceland

Two volcanologists are on a quest to understand why lava mixing with water can cause massive explosions.

The rocks make small sucking noises from inside the crucible as they melt into a red-orange mass. Formed originally from lava, the chunks of basalt are returning to their igneous state, while above them, the air shimmers from the heat.

Volcanologist Ingo Sonder and Ph.D. student Andrew Harp of the University at Buffalo stand beside the furnace dressed in fireproof suits and red helmets that have green face shields. They've come to this remote location, 45 miles from the university, to conduct an experiment that will provide some clues about to what happens when molten rock from erupting volcanoes meets water - a natural phenomenon that can have explosive results.

Take the event that occurred in Iceland in 2010, for example, when lava from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano came into contact with a glacier. The mixing of ice, water and molten rock created a massive ash cloud that grounded air traffic in Europe for days. Another Icelandic eruption, this one at Holuhraun in 2015, had similar amounts of water and large quantities of magma in the same region, but produced no noticeable explosions.

"We currently don't quite understand what the necessary pre-conditions for the high-explosive phase are, and that's what we're interested in finding out," Sonder tells me.

It's not an unfamiliar question for volcanologists. But for obvious safety concerns, researchers like Sonder can't visit a volcano when it's erupting to learn just what has triggered an explosion or why other interactions between lava and water create quieter events. They settle for the next best thing, and devise experiments to simulate the reactions.

Sonder has simulated eruptions before on a smaller scale in the lab of Bernd Zimanowski, a volcanologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany. There, he conducted experiments using a half-pound of molten rock. But here, at the end of a gravel road beside a couple of cinder block sheds sheathed in blue corrugated metal, Sonder is hoping for more.

"What's the most dramatic explosion effect we can get at this scale and with this technique?" Sonder says over the incessant whine of the power supply that feeds a coil inside the furnace. The coil creates an oscillating magnetic field that generates temperatures up to 1300 degrees Celsius (2372 degrees Fahrenheit).

Not even a crucible, designed to melt steel, can withstand that heat indefinitely. The bottoms of four discarded ones lay nearby, having performed valiantly through several iterations of this experiment.

Melting 123 pounds of basalt into an unbearably hot orange ooze takes about four hours. Every now and then, Sonder stirs the melt with a long piece of rebar to make sure the rock cooks evenly.

Meanwhile, a few feet away, Harp is at work on the other part of the experiment. He runs hoses to a reservoir on the roof of the shed that will deliver water to a pair of massive syringes below. The syringes have been positioned near a sledgehammer suspended within a tall metal frame. When released, the hammer will provide an additional impulse, mimicking an explosion or the shudder of an earthquake that, in nature, would trigger an explosive event.

"There are dozens of things that have to happen very precisely all at once," Harp explains. The morning had been misted with fog, but as the sun rises, the day gives way to a surprisingly warm January. Both men are sweating in their protective suits.

Harp and Sonder set up a high-speed camera and two standard video cameras around the site to capture the action. The two cameras, which are potentially inside the splash zone, have been housed inside metal cash boxes that Sonder modified with strategic holes and insulation to allow them to capture the action without getting damaged by flying bits of molten rock.

When everything is ready and the rock fully melted, Sonder and Harp pour the molten rock into a battered and insulated steel container, and then quickly roll the box along a custom set of railroad tracks to beneath the metal frame. They activate the computer program that will trigger the syringes and hammer and then head up a small hill several meters away where they can safely observe what happens next. It has taken almost half a day to arrive at this point, but the experiment itself will take just eight seconds.

They wait for a moment, watching the deceptively still container. Then, the two large metal syringes push into the container and inject water into the melt. A split second later, the sledgehammer falls, slamming into a trigger on the side of the box. Bright orange ribbons of molten rock fly into the air and a fine mist of steam pours out of the box.

Sonder and Harp high-five and allow themselves a small moment of celebration - the results were similar to an earlier experiment that they were trying to replicate. They trot down the hill to the metal frame to inspect the scene.

Fine pieces of volcanic shrapnel sparkle across the equipment and ground up to a few meters away. Some have landed in jet-black beads and jagged splashes, others are fragile ephemeral glass bubbles, and still others have stretched out into blonde glass fragments that coat the experimental setup, a form of solidified lava known as Pele's hair.

They watch the footage from the explosion. Interestingly, in this iteration, the explosion appears to have started not with the impact of the hammer, but with the injection of the water, potentially giving them insight into the process of the explosion.

"There's almost more water than melt," Harp says, pointing at the video.

Sonder and Harp have run the experiment more than 20 times since 2015 and have seen a wide variety of results. There have been large explosions and small ones. Occasionally, no explosion at all. More data is needed for them to come to any conclusions about their early results, but they think they're on the right track.

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This summer, they'll be adding a more powerful water pump in an effort to re-create even more explosive conditions. They hope to eventually be able to quantify and characterize why the water-lava interaction makes the molten rock explode. That information could improve hazard maps meant to better inform people living in the shadow of the volcano about water-related volcanic dangers.

"Water is everywhere," Sonder notes, even near active volcanos. "You can't keep people from building in areas that are otherwise good for building," he goes on, not even if there is a potential danger from a nearby volcanic eruption in the future.

But it is possible to develop accurate ways to assess the hazards of a volcano, including the probability of large explosive events when lava or magma encounters ice or water. For that to be done, we'll first have to figure out how such explosions unfold at the most basic level.

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