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Dr. Einat Lev, Columbia University – Understanding Lava

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Einat Lev of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University describes her research into the properties of flowing lava. 

Einat Lev is a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.  She works on the Lava Project in conjunction with Bob Wysocki and Jeff Karson at Syracuse University. She earned her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About Dr. Lev

Dr. Einat Lev – Understanding Lava

Volcanic lava comes in many styles and flavors. Different kinds of flows cover the ocean floors, build giant mountains and form parts of continents. Their remains are common on the moon, Venus and Mars. Studying the dynamics of flows helps us devise defenses for communities near volcanoes. Hardened lavas also provide a lasting record of  the frequency of eruptions, and the chemical and physical mechanisms that drive them.

 I am part of a project aimed at improving our understanding of lava flows. In short -- we make our own flows! We do this at a lab run by my colleagues at Syracuse University. Here, we melt basaltic rocks—that is, hardened chunks of lava-- by heating them back up to almost 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in a furnace. We then pour the lava out onto surfaces made of different materials and shapes. So far, we’ve poured lava on wet and dry sand; onto soil; into metal flumes of various shapes; on ice and on snow; and into a bathtub full of water. We collect data on the lava’s behavior using instruments such as infrared video cameras and high-temperature thermometers.

 The experiments have already yielded interesting results, including benchmarks we can use to predict the behavior of flows in natural conditions. For instance, in our experiments using ice and snow, our lavas have created shapes similar to those we see in Iceland, the U.S. northwest, and other volcanic regions where there are glaciers. Flows that we poured into channels containing obstacles have taught us how lava may interact with buildings, trees or cliffs.

 We have many plans for future experiments. We plan to re-create Martian flows by pouring lava onto the kind of dust-like material that covers that planet. We want to look at how water-vapor, oxygen and other gasses are transmitted between ground and lava.  Our new ability to create carefully-controlled lava flows opens the door to new directions in the study of the earth, and beyond.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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