Skip to main content

Science: Experimental Results

The Syracuse University Lava project seeks to bridge the gap between other types of investigations of lava flows. With lava flows that are close to the scale of the incremental volumes of lava that combine to make larger flow fields our experiments provide a unique perspective on the behavior and morphology of lavas. No other program routinely creates lava flows on the scale hundreds to thousands of pounds per flow. By varying experimental conditions we have learned to create a very wide range of lava flow morphologies and other features that correspond to those found in nature. Careful documentation of experiments provides detailed information on the conditions under which these features form. The following images highlight some selected results of recent experiments. 

By varying experimental conditions we have been able to create a very wide range of lava morphologies that are also found in natural lava flows. A sampling of these results illustrates how different parameters can affect the final morphology of the flows.

Click on an image to see an expanded view.

Subaerial Flow Morphologies

Summary of flow morphologies produced by varying slope, temperature (T) and effusion rate (Q) in Lava Project experiments. Additional experiments will quantify the transitions between different morphologies.

Details of Subaerial Flows

Very different flow morphologies produced on different slopes under at the same conditions (1150°C): 20°slope (left), 5°slope (right).
Part of 8-ton lava pahoehoe flow produced in the large blast furnace showing lobate structures.
Lobate pahoehoe flow formed on a 5° slope at ~1150°C.
Central part of a pahoehoe flow collapses as two break-outs form downslope.

Internal Structure of Flows

Experimental lava flow with high vesicle content.
Experimental lava flow with brownish core rich in crystallites.
Drained lava tube with drips from ceiling.
“Picrite” flow with dense green olivine-rich core (about 4 cm thick).

Exotic Lava Features

Pele’s tears produced by dripping lava.
Pele’s hair produced by pouring lava through a powerful air stream.
Lava bubbles form on an eroded slope as water in wet sand below is vaporized.
Lava flow arrested at a barrier.
Glowing bubble formed by water vapor escaping from beneath a flow.
Lava bubbles forming from water vapor released from clay surface.

Lava/Ice Interactions

Pouring lava on to an ice ramp generates many bursting bubbles.
Pouring lava into an ice channel.
Detail of lava poured over ice.
Texture of lava surface that was poured over ice.
Delicate glass bulb formed when a droplet of lava fell on to snow.
Flood of melt water formed downslope of a lava flow over ice.

Pillow Lavas

Pillow lava break-out under water in large water tank.
Highly fragmented pillow lava lobes formed in a large water tank.


Lava flow diverted around a barrier.
Lava diverted around complex barriers analogous to rough terrain.
Pouring lava over algae as a possible analog for an ancient Mars surface.
Elementary school student experiment with apples and pebbles dropped into flowing lava.

Complex deformation structures form in the cooling crust of flowing basaltic lavas. These include folds, shear zones and other structures that are common in tectonically deformed terranes. Our experiments provide an opportunity to investigate these features as they form.

Fold Wavelength Study: Folds in the crust of pahoehoe lava may provide insights into the viscosity of the crust relative to the viscous core of the flow.

Click on an image to see an expanded view.

Fold Wavelength Study: Folds in the crust of pahoehoe lava may provide insights into the viscosity of the crust relative to the viscous core of the flow.

Oblique view of folded pahoehoe flow.
Section folds in lava crust.
Tracing of a fold profile.
Schematic diagram of lava flow folding (Gregg et al., 1998).

Fold Spectum Study: An example of photogrammetric 3D models of pahoehoe lava flows from the SU lava project. Digitized topography of the lava surface can be profiled and analyzed using Fourier transform to reveal a power spectrum of the complexly folded crust. (James Farrell, 2017)

Folded crust in experimental pahoehoe lava flow.
Point cloud for digital analysis.
DEM of flow with axial profile; inset shows spectrum of fold wavelengths along profile.

Microstructures: Shearing in flow-banded lavas show microstructures that are analogous to those that form in deformed metamorphic and plutonic rocks.

Flow fabric in glassy basalt with S-C fabric.
Sigmoidal tension gashes in flow banded glassy basalt adjacent to steel sphere (surrogate crystal).
Elliptical vesicles show part of strain in flow banded basaltic glass.
Dark, tabular clinopyroxene crystals with tiled fabric along edge of lava tube.

On a microscopic scale, lavas commonly contain vesicles (trapped gas bubbles), crystals and other textural features that can provide clues to lava flow processes. Because our lava flows are relatively thin and cool very rapidly they are mostly composed of basaltic glass (nearly amorphous, isotropic material). With slower cooling and in specific parts of flows where nucleation is possible, crystals develop. Examples below illustrate some interesting features found in past experiments.

Click on an image to see an expanded view.

Typical amorphous basaltic glass from a lava flow experiment.
Highly fragmented glassy basalt that was poured in water.
Bubble wall fragments in fragmented lava.
Acicular, quenched plagioclase crystals in lava.
Angular olivine grains added to a lava flow.
Lava flow with resorbed olivine overgrown by pale orthopyroxene and acicular plagioclase after 40 minutes in lava.