Parking Lot Lava Flows
August 21, 2012

Syracuse University Creates Lava Flows In A Parking Lot

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

How often have you wished you could safely see a lava flow, like the one that destroyed Pompeii?  Did you ever wish you could see it in Syracuse, New York?

Professors, students, visiting volcanologists and passing spectators are now seeing lava flows in a campus parking lot at Syracuse University and have been since January 2010.

The Syracuse University Lava Project has created a unique blending of science, art, and education to investigate the physical properties, aesthetics and educational opportunities of creating basaltic lava flows in a controlled laboratory environment - outside in the parking lot.

The project team uses chunks of basaltic rock, similar to what is found on the seafloor or in Hawaii and Iceland, to melt and pour natural-scale lava flows up to a few meters long. The project attracts the public, visiting scientists, artists, and kids with marshmallows. Between experiments, team members allow children to roast marshmallows over the cooling flows while they explain how lava works.

Basaltic lava flows are the most common and voluminous volcanic outpourings on Earth and the surrounding planets. These are the types of flows seen in Hawaii, Iceland and Italy. Basaltic lava also dominate Large Igneous Provinces in the oceans and on the continents, such as the Columbia River Basalt Group, which covers parts of five Western states, and the Siberian Traps, which likely contributed to the Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago.

Most basaltic flows on Earth, however, occur under the ocean. The mid-oceanic ridges are constantly repaving themselves with basaltic lava.  Even with this proliferation of basaltic flows, many questions remain about the behavior and nature of them.

Active flows are rarely witnessed up close; they tend to be in inaccessible locations and erupt without warning. Then there's the danger factor, naturally erupting lava flows are unpredictable and extremely dangerous. Natural eruptions provide invaluable data, but in a very uncontrolled atmosphere. There is no way to constrain key elements that influence the behavior of lava — composition, crystallinity, temperature, flow rate, slope and even the material the lava flows over.

Features like overall shape and surface textures allow geologists to interpret what is known of lava behavior. Scientists also use numerical models and analog experiments (sometimes wax or syrup) to provide a framework of understanding.

There have been previous attempts to melt basalt and pour lava in a laboratory setting, as far back as the 1700's in a black smith's forge. Since then, only tiny amounts of lava (a few ounces at a time) have been used to study various properties, which presents its own challenges.

The Syracuse University Lava Project tries to bridge the gap between these tiny laboratory experiments and naturally occurring flows. They use commercially available basalt that came from such natural flows and load it into a gas fueled tilt furnace. The tilt furnace was originally used for pouring molten metals and is heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius to melt up to 800 pounds of basalt at a time. The lava is heated for several hours to produce a homogeneous, convecting magma, which can be poured, recycled and poured again.

The initial pours were small, a few tens of pounds each, but they drew the attention of student groups, classes and interested visitors. As funding and furnace size increased, so did the size of the pours. Currently, they are creating up to 800 pounds of lava at a time. To date, they have created more than 50 lava flow experiments with more than 100 individual flows.

But wait, that's not all. Scientific knowledge isn't the only aim of this rather ambitious project.

The students and scientists involved in the project also see it as an opportunity for educational outreach. They encourage other student groups, both college and younger, to attend lava pour events and to suggest ideas for further research. Sometimes they perform these spectator experiments on the fly as they are suggested. The team maintains a library of video and data from previous pours that students and teachers can access for lessons.

The project gets even more unusual from there. Spectators commonly include groups that do not normally interact — children, college students, artists, reporters and scientists. These disparate groups come together and ask questions, perform experiments and even have marshmallow and hot dog roasts over the lava, allowing a free flowing exchange of information and ideas on a multitude of levels.

We did mention artists a few times and they play an active role in this project as well. Sculpture students pour lava into molds and onto a variety of surfaces to use the inherent beauty of flowing and solidifying lava. The art students are also helping to create scale models of lava fields that are geomorphically accurate, they are creating lava flow structures that can be preserved and used in museums and classrooms, and they are developing new techniques that can be used for a range of artistic and scientific endeavors. Science and art are supporting and contributing to each other on all levels of the project.

There is nothing quite like seeing a molten mass of incandescent, orange basalt, heated to more than 1,200 degrees Celsius, as it flows and forms complex shapes and patterns. Souvenir pieces of lava are available to everyone and serve as lasting reminders of the notion that mixing science, art and education can lead to glowing results.

Find out more about this remarkable project here.