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Watch scientists make and explode lava to study volcanoes

When water and lava collide, you'd better get out of the way.

An intense reaction occurs after water is injected into molten rock.

Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Not content with just watching the stuff explode out of volcanoes, researchers at the University at Buffalo have created their own lava -- just to watch it explode.

The research, published Nov. 10 in JGR Solid Earth, details a set of experiments the team conducted to understand how volcanoes, full of magma, naturally interact with water. Sometimes when the two forces collide nothing happens at all, but other times, you get a fantastic magma-water explosion. The research team wanted to work out why that might happen.

To learn more about this strange interaction, which is termed "phreatomagmatic eruptions" in natural volcanoes, the team built furnaces and filled them with rocks, heating the materials up to around 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the rock had melted, they'd pour it into a steel box and then inject it with jets of water. 

And then they'd wait -- and hope for an explosion.

The results speak for themselves:

Sometimes, the lava-water interactions would provide intense explosive activity and other times the water would mostly evaporate without generating any huge volcano-like eruption. On top of that, sometimes the team had to use a plunger, driven by a standard hammer, which would stimulate a reaction -- and a lava explosion.

By varying the height of the steel container the lava was contained in and the speed at which water was injected, the researchers could begin to piece together what might kick off a spontaneous water-lava interaction.

They showed that taller steel containers and faster injection of water generally corresponded with the biggest explosions -- and in four of their six experiments, there were explosions even before the plunger was dropped. However, due to the small amount of repeat experiments, the researchers caution it's only early days.

It's hoped that the experiments can provide better tools to forecast when or how volcanic eruptions may occur. However, before more significant conclusions are drawn about the dynamics of this particular explosive process in real-scale volcanoes, the team agrees more experiments are necessary.

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