Science

Falling into lava would be a pretty hot mess

As Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano keeps regurgitating molten rock, the US Geological Service continues to post amazingly terrifying photos and videos of lava spewing up in the air and taking over land. The lava is scorching hot, it glows bright orange, and it has the power to gobble up anything that crosses its path. So, what would happen if you touched it?

The lava coming out of Kīlauea is over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,170 degrees Celsius). “It’s much hotter than anything you’d get in your stove at home,” says Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. Dipping your hand into molten rock won’t kill you instantly, but it will give you severe, painful burns — “the kind that destroy nerve endings and boil subcutaneous fat,” says David Damby, a research chemist at the USGS Volcano Science Center, in an email to The Verge.

Now, falling into lava is another story. The extreme heat would probably burn your lungs and cause your organs to fail. “The water in the body would probably boil to steam, all while the lava is melting the body from the outside in,” Damby says. (No worries, though, the volcanic gases would probably knock you unconscious.) But unlike one of the characters in the 1997 film Volcano or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, you wouldn’t sink into the lava and liquefy like the Wicked Witch of the West, says Klemetti, who wrote about those scenes in a 2011 Wired article. Lava may look like a liquid, but it’s not like water: it’s too sticky and viscous. “So you’d be sitting on top of the lava flow,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University.

The thickness of the lava is the same reason why volcanologists trying to take samples don’t use buckets. Instead, they dip rock hammers into the molten rock, extracting curdled-up magma for testing. “It’s not like going to a stream and putting a bucket into the water,” says Klemetti. “The bucket would just sit on top of the lava flow.” In fact, lava solidifies quickly, forming a black crust at the top that’s pretty sturdy — sturdy enough, for instance, to support the weight of this guy running up a lava flow on Mount Etna in Italy. (But don’t try this yourself.)

That crust is also sharp. Most injuries related to lava occur when people walk on cooled lava and scrape themselves, Damby says. That’s what happened to Krippner about a decade ago when she was doing field work on a volcano in New Zealand. She stepped on a loose bit of hardened lava that rolled under her feet, causing her to fall over the sharp rocks. “It wasn’t a massively severe cut. It healed, but I had a bit of a dent in my leg,” she says.

Lava is scary, but it’s not the most dangerous thing during an eruption. Lava usually flows pretty slowly, so you have time to “briskly” walk away from it, Damby says. (In 1977, however, fast-pacing lava from the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo killed nearly 300 people when it went over nearby villages.) The real danger comes from volcanic mudflows, also called lahars, says Krippner. These are essentially landslides of volcanic material and debris that have the consistency of concrete and can race down a volcano at more than 120 miles per hour (200 km/h). In 1985, a lahar caused by the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia submerged an entire town, killing 25,000 people. “In most cases, you can’t outrun them,” Krippner says.

Then there’s the pyroclastic flows, which are the apocalyptic clouds of gases, rocks, and other volcanic debris that travel at speeds higher than 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and at temperatures between 390 and 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (200 to 700 degrees Celsius). If you find yourself in a pyroclastic flow — like the people of Pompeii in 79 AD — you’ll likely suffocate to death or be crushed by a flying boulder (like this poor dude in Pompeii). “They are a lethal combination of heat, noxious gas, and impacts,” Damby says.

Though lava flows aren’t as hazardous, they should still be taken seriously. In Hawaii, the lava from the Kīlauea volcano eruption has destroyed at least 82 homes, according to Reuters. No one has died, but “a man’s leg was shattered when he was hit by a spatter of super-dense lava,” Reuters report.

So please, stay away from lava and don’t touch it. Also, don’t roast marshmallows on it, the USGS says. But you can admire how incredibly fascinating lava is. “We think of rocks as so very permanent, but here’s molten rock that’s coming out of the ground,” Klemetti says. “It’s hard to not be fascinated by the idea that somewhere underground, there are processes happening that can melt the interior of the Earth and spit it out at the surface.”

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