Despite the millions of years they’ve been on this planet, volcanoes and how they work largely remain a mystery to science. Since it’s virtually impossible to get inside a volcano itself to study it, researchers with the University at Buffalo, in the US state of New York, are investigating the various mechanisms behind volcanic explosions – by creating eruptions themselves.
The lab setting for lead investigator Ingo Sonder, a research scientist at the Center for Geohazards Studies with the university, isn’t a bright white room full of glass tubes and flasks. In fact, it’s not even inside. He and his team drive to a remote area nearly 40 miles south of the campus, where they create lava in an isolated former ballistics-testing facility. Making lava is seriously dangerous business, so there can’t be any unsuspecting bystanders.
In this outdoor lab, the experiment takes roughly 13 hours. That includes all the time needed to heat up the rocks so that they melt, and then the action-packed part of the experiment lasts only a few seconds, as the researchers inject water into the molten rock in order to create an explosion of lava. Temperatures in the oven used for the process can reach up to 1,370 degrees Celsius (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit), so the researchers have to wear special heat-resistant suits. Even still, it feels otherworldly to get so close to glowing orange lava.
This research is essential. Sonder and his team believe that by studying the movement of their man-made lava, they can better understand what’s happening in actual volcanoes. Since millions of people live near active volcanoes, the hope is that this research can help develop some type of a warning system so scientists know when an eruption is coming – and what to expect when it does. Just last year, the Fuego volcano in Guatemala erupted, belching rock, lava, and ash into the vicinity, ultimately killing more than 60 people.
So this science isn’t just awe-inspiring. It’s potentially life-saving.
This story was produced in partnership with Atlas Obscura.