Lava flows are among the most dramatic natural phenomena. They are unpredictable, commonly occur in remote areas and they are dangerous. Each lava flow is a unique event: an “experiment by Nature” that is difficult to study and that cannot be repeated. In the Syracuse University Lava Project lava flows are created under controlled conditions to help better understand the dynamics of flowing lava and how to interpret lava flows from the geologic record.
There are many factors that influence the behavior of lava including composition (especially silica content), temperature, slope, effusion rate, vesicularity (entrained gas bubbles), crystallinity, water content and the nature of the surface that the lava flows over. In our experiments, we attempt to hold as many of these factors constant as possible as we vary one or more of the others in order to better understand their mutual effects. For example, for most of our experiments to date we use the same composition material (basalt with about 50% silica- the most common type of lava on Earth) as we systematically vary the other parameters. Observations of active lava flows in nature provide many testable hypotheses in this rich experimental environment.
Most lava flows are seen long after they have cooled and stopped flowing. Geologists seek to understand the conditions under which they erupted retroactively based on preserved features and comparisons with active flows. The composition of lava flows and their morphology (outcrop-scale form) are key elements in these interpretations. In our experiments with basaltic lava we can produce many different morphologies corresponding to those in natural lava flows. Our experiments can shed new light on the critical factors that determine the ultimate form of lava flows and how they are interpreted.