The Lava Makers

In a decade-long collaboration of art and science, the Syracuse University Lava Project has fired up researchers and creatives to explore the beauty and characteristics of magma.

Student takes temperature of a lava flow
Earth sciences doctoral candidate Chris Sant checks the temperature of the lava with a thermocouple.

College of Visual and Performing Arts sculpture professor Robert Wysocki loves making lava. For nearly a decade, he has routinely loaded up the crucible of a tilt furnace outside of the Comstock Art Facility with hundreds of pounds of crushed basalt gravel, cooked it overnight to a melting point exceeding 1,100 degrees Celsius and let it flow. As the molten rock departs the furnace, two things are immediately evident: The glowing brightness is astonishing and the extreme heat is palpable. What happens next can be a wild card—for the lava enters the realm of scientific experiment, performance art, education and thrilling experience for onlookers. Lava vs. Ice. Lava vs. Water. Lava vs. Barriers. “When I’m working with lava it’s an amazing feeling,” Wysocki says. “Each time I see it I’m as amazed as I was on January 22, 2010, the first time we poured it here.”  

Back then, Wysocki was interested in creating large-scale natural landforms. At the top of his list was making lava flows with basalt—the black volcanic rock that is a fundamental building block of the terrestrial planets and moons and the most common kind of lava found on Earth. He pitched the idea to geologist Jeff Karson, chair of the Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, who recognized the scientific value of large-scale lava pours. After all, Karson was familiar with experiments that involved melting bead-sized pieces of basalt in a lab, but he had studied very young and even active flows from erupting volcanoes in Hawaii, Iceland and the deep sea floor and knew the challenges and dangers of venturing near eruptions in remote areas. In their view, this was a can’t-pass-up interdisciplinary opportunity and, with University support, they founded the Syracuse University Lava Project, creating a fusion of science, art and education. “It’s been a lot of work since then, but also a lot of rewards,” Wysocki says.

For their work, they acquired 1.2 billion-year-old basalt from a Wisconsin quarry and a furnace that had been used for pouring molten metals in Canada. Under controlled conditions, researchers can study lava flows with a range of parameters—different rates of flow, temperatures and slopes, its interaction with numerous surface materials and other details. “This has been endlessly fascinating for us and incredibly educational,” Karson says. “Every single time we pour lava I learn something new and we see something we haven’t seen before. It’s like almost anything in geology: The closer you look, the more complex it becomes.”

Active Experiments and Artistic Pursuits

More than 2,000 pours later, the Lava Project has delivered far beyond anything they originally envisioned. They’ve performed myriad scientific experiments and published research papers; they’ve collaborated on research projects with investigators from numerous institutions worldwide, including ones from Hawaii, Iceland, Italy and New Zealand, where there are active volcanoes; visiting scientists have tested field equipment, such as infrared cameras, for use at natural, active lava flow sites. They’ve hosted undergraduates from the Keck Geology Consortium for summer research projects. And graduate students have earned degrees based on experimental pours.

They’ve received plenty of media coverage from major news outlets as well as such networks as National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and National Public Radio. They hauled the lava machine to Death Valley, California, for a pour featured in a BBC documentary on how to build a planet. Two British TV celebrity chefs showed up on campus to grill steaks over the lava. Wysocki collaborated with a husband-and-wife entrepreneur team who established the Icelandic Lava Show, which bedazzles tourists with small lava flow demonstrations in the town of Vik. In fall 2015, Wysocki performed a monstrous pour at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche Art Exposition, creating a specially designed-and-built 25-foot-high, coke-fired blast furnace for the event. It took four people to operate and they cooked and poured a continuous flow of nearly six tons of lava for thousands of spectators through the night.

Wysocki, who suspects he’s seen more lava than many volcanologists, says lately his artistic aspirations have evolved from building a soccer field-sized lava flow toward the imagery of lava. “Big, tight shots of lava,” he says.

Wysocki and Karson have also welcomed the community. They’ve invited local schools to pours, igniting the imaginations of schoolchildren and fueling their curiosity about what happens when you toss a snowball on lava or how long it takes to toast a marshmallow or roast a hot dog over cooling magma. They taught a Renée Crown University Honors course for two years and now guide Syracuse students through experiments in the interdisciplinary course Aesthetics and Dynamics of Lava, where they develop projects ranging from creating jewelry to researching aspects of volcanology. The class is also unique—no other college campus provides students with the opportunity to work this closely with lava.

The Aesthetics and Dynamics of Lava

Overhead shot of a lava pour
As lava flows down a slope of packed sand, Earth sciences professor Jeff Karson (left) looks on with doctoral student April Allen Langhans, postdoctoral researcher James Farrell G’19 and doctoral candidate Chris Sant (right).

On a Thursday morning in late September, students in the class gather by the tilt furnace for the day’s pour. On a packed sand slope beneath the furnace’s spout, Earth sciences doctoral candidate Chris Sant has laid out 30 blocks of dry ice. He tells the class the lava will slide down the ice and he’s interested in studying the physical and chemical interactions between the dry ice and the lava. “We’ll see if the carbon dioxide gets trapped inside the lava,” he says.

This is right in Sant’s wheelhouse. His doctoral research is focused on the dynamics of lava in relation to morphology and volatile eruptions. “I study how gases interact with active lava flows and how changing certain parameters changes the overall shape of the lava flow,” he says.

Sant grew up in the Seattle area with a view of the volcanic Cascade Range and fell in love with volcanoes. While teaching after earning a master’s degree in geology, he was amazed by a Lava Project video on YouTube featuring a flow over a sheet of ice (8.4 million hits and counting). He contacted Karson and Wysocki and decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Syracuse University. “There’s no other place in the world that has a big furnace like this one that does lava experiments at such a large scale,” he says. “Students can see this in person to help them understand how volcanoes operate—that’s a one-of-a-kind thing.”

As predicted, the lava skates like a hockey puck across the blocks, riding the vaporizing dry ice as it goes, trapping the carbon dioxide and creating bubbles. Later, Sant measures the thickness of a shard from a broken bubble. “It’s only 60 micrometers,” he says. “And this one is even thinner. This is crazy.”

Kevin Nusdeo ’21, an Earth sciences and forensic science major, is fascinated by the idea of man-made lava and is contemplating a “trap door” experiment that would create a mini volcano. “This is just an awesome class,” he says.

A week later, the furnace is ready for another round of experiments. Postdoctoral researcher James Farrell G’19, who earned his doctorate culling research information from the experimental flows, sets up a metal arc frame of 10 digital cameras on the furnace’s pouring platform. Images from the cameras are used in a photogrammetry technique that allows him to create 3D images of the lava as it moves across the packed sand slope. He studies the physics and behavior of lava flows, including Hawaii’s pahoehoe flows. “They are lobate, smooth lava flows that advance as miniature lobes about the same size as we make,” Farrell says. “We’re working toward scaling up and trying to understand much bigger lava flows, like those in Hawaii and Iceland.”

Earth sciences doctoral student April Allen Langhans is looking to see whether a computer modeling program she’s developing can simulate the flow of lava across the wet, packed sand. She needs to know the parameters—temperature, velocity, viscosity. “I’ll link them with the flow and the different morphological features we see in the flow,” she says.

Lava pours onto pieces of wood
Professor Jeff Karson assists Joe Sherwood ’22, an industrial and interaction design major, as they pour lava on water-soaked boards. Sherwood would like to create an electric guitar with lava features.

The morning’s first experiment is the creation of Joe Sherwood ’22, an industrial and interaction design major. He says his interest in working with different materials for designs drew him to the class. He’d like to craft an electric guitar featuring lava-burned wood coated with lava and epoxy. Working with Karson, he places five small boards, which have soaked in water over different time intervals, on a metal frame. Lava streams out of the furnace over the boards, which smoke and blaze. Moments later, they set the boards aside and Sherwood hoses them down. The lava doesn’t stick as he’d hoped and he wonders whether he should have let it burn more and settle on the boards longer. “If I can’t capture the lava on top of the wood,” he says, “I might put shards of lava in it.”

Creating Natural Examples

Image of a rootless cone
A rootless cone formed when lava trapped moisture from wet sand and turned it into steam, forming a bubble that then shattered.

The morning’s major pour produces what Karson calls a “rootless cone.” The lava traps the wet sand’s moisture and heats it into steam that expands and blows a dome-like bubble near the head of the flow. When broken later, a look inside reveals no lava base underneath. “We’ve never had this result before,” Karson says. “You can see the dry sand substrate beneath the lava flow. There’s no root to the cone. Similar structures form in Hawaii and Iceland where the lava inflates locally as it flows over wet or marshy ground.”

As Karson points out, it’s an extreme example—one of many phenomena that can occur during the pours. Sizzling, sparking, bubbling, all sorts of beautiful shapes form as the lava trudges forward. “When lava erupts, it’s always a race between downslope movement and cooling,” he says. “As it cools, the viscosity increases rapidly, so it can only flow so far.” Among other examples, they’ve produced what’s known as Pele’s hair, extremely fine strands of lava glass. “One of the important things we’re studying is what the shapes of the lava flows are telling us,” Karson says. “Usually geologists see old, cold lava flows in their final form that could be billions of years old, or ones on other planets or the deep sea floor where no one has witnessed the active volcanism. What’s left behind are lava flows with distinctive shapes, and those shapes tell us how the lava flowed and interacted with surrounding materials.”

Another material they’re experimenting with in the class is salt. Earth sciences major Taylor Gwilt ’20 is exploring how lava interacts with blocks of salt, believing it could offer insights on what happens when a lake basin—in an area of continental rifting and active volcanism—dries up, leaving salt behind. In her first experiment, the sodium chloride blocks withstand the lava heat and don’t melt. “The tops were slightly charred and the texture of the salt blocks changed,” she says, looking forward to her next go with the experiment. “The salt started to crumble and then melt and swirl into the lava.”

As teachers, Wysocki and Karson love the way the class inspires the students to think about ways to experiment with lava, scientifically and creatively, and explore different modes of learning. “This has been the greatest educational tool I’ve ever had,” Wysocki says.

Gaining Future Insights from the Past

Karson has spent decades of his professional career studying areas where lava flows are abundant. Along with investigations in Hawaii and Iceland, he researches fault zones and volcanic structures of the deep ocean floors, which are covered in basaltic lava flows. Active volcanism on Earth mostly occurs in the submarine mountain ranges known as mid-ocean ridges, he says. “If you really want to study lava flows, it’s one of those places you can’t ignore.”

Neither can extraterrestrial volcanoes and lava flows be overlooked. Earth’s moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars and its moons and Jupiter’s moons feature them, and Karson notes the red planet has water, ice and frozen carbon dioxide (“dry ice”). That’s why experiments like Sant’s with dry ice may help us understand ancient eruptions on other planetary bodies.

And spinning to the present, it’s evident both Karson and Wysocki appreciate the research, fun and education the Lava Project provides. “Not everybody gets to be close to lava and carefully study it,” Karson says. “It’s fascinating exploring such an absolutely fundamental part of the way our planet and the inner planets of our solar system have been built. This is a unique student experience here at Syracuse University. It’s the only place on a university campus where students can see and interact with a lava flow, whether they’re students from our intro geology classes, graduate students doing research projects or students in this class who have the chance to bring their own creativity to working with the lava.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .


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