Making volcanoes in the lab

By Eleanor

Early on in my PhD I started telling people I do “experimental petrology”, which was true, but most people had no idea what I was talking about. I liked the term because it sounded clever and then I would explain it. “Petrology is the study of how rocks form,” I would say, “so I do experiments to understand how rocks form.”

Lately I’ve given up on that approach – instead, I just say, “I make magma.” This is also true, and it usually gets people more interested… everyone likes magma!

But then people tend to assume that I study volcanoes. So I have to add, “I’m interested in magma before it even thinks of coming out of a volcano.”

I don’t study volcanoes, but many people do, and last week I visited the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where I met people who do experimental volcanology. Now that’s a term people might be able to understand: yes, it does mean making volcanoes in the lab.

I was lucky enough to attend a short course called “Melts, Glasses and Magmas” by Prof. Don Dingwell. The course was fantastic – I felt like it came at just the right time for me, that it really helped me to develop my understanding and think more critically about my own research.

But besides the lectures, we were also given tours of the lab facilities. Seeing fancy, complicated looking labs is always fun, but it’s even better when you get to see something that has been referred to as a “volcano in the basement”… even if it does look more like a rocket ship than a volcano.


The top part of each of these columns is just a big container full of air. In a small chamber at the bottom sits a sample of volcanic rock, which has a lot of pores (holes). This lower chamber is filled with high-pressure argon gas – the gas also fills in all the holes in the rock.

Then, the valves separating the two chambers are opened. Suddenly the high-pressure gas at the bottom, in the rock, expands, and it does this so quickly that the rock explodes and is forced up into the chamber above – bang! Volcanic eruption!

Recently, in one of these ‘eruptions’, the team in Munich observed volcanic lightning! This is the first time volcanic lightning has been seen in a laboratory – check out the video.

Aloha, Mahalo and Goodnight!

By Jo Ward

I was lucky enough to go on the recent Geological Society of America’s Hawaiian volcanoes field trip with a fabulous bunch of students from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  It was an amazing geological experience and a fantastic opportunity to meet people from around the world. For those of you who are not familiar with Hawaii, the culture is unique and exhibits a lovely blend of Polynesian traditions and if you think you can’t take a good photo, it is the place for you! I challenge anyone to take a bad photo of the Hawaiian landscape, it won’t happen.


There is an uncanny fondness for Chihuahuas across the island state and a reverence when referring to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and the creator of the islands. The mythology surrounding her describes her as a fair but fiery lady who is not to be trifled with. She is so highly respected that during volcanic activity, locals in Kona visit the henna parlors to have images of her and the volcano imprinted on their bodies.  The locals are conscientious in their attempt to not lose their cultural roots and are happy to chat about almost anything, for a place that is so regularly devastated by natural hazards the spirit and generosity of the people was absolutely phenomenal to experience.

The trip was organized by Gary Lewis of the GSA and co-run by the lovely Amy Magoo, the whole trip was well planned and expertly executed. I’m an ore-focused geologist and had a limited knowledge of volcanology but that did not inhibit the experience or my understanding on this tour. Like many geo’s it is not until you go out into the field that you gain a deeper understanding of how all the features for a deposit/ landscape fit together.


The trip delivered awesome activities like hiking some truly incredibly impressive lava fields and volcanoes, coastal treks, whale watching and an amazing ‘doors off’ chopper ride over the currently active Kilauea volcano summit with an adept Belgian pilot named York who provided an excellent playlist. I can honestly say the combination of Jonny Cash’s Ring of Fire while flying over ropey Pohoehoe flows decimating a pine forest and feeling the heat and smoke off the ground was a once in a lifetime experience, and what can I say I love volcanic gasses in the morning.


We also ventured to an ocean worn  ancient lava cove which holds one of the world’s only green beach, or for the discerning geologist a beach with sand consisting entirely of olivine. The water was unlike any colour I’ve seen and there was something almost trippy and definitely enjoyable about lying in green sand.


The sunsets are spectacular, the cocktails were creative and tasty (I suggest trying a ‘Lava-flow’) and the geology was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ve snorkeled with a 3-legged turtle, learned many things and seen the ‘glow’ of a volcanic crater at night. I had an absolute ball and cannot more highly recommend having a geo-venture in Hawaii.


Not quite News yet – Part I

In this series we present fictive “News Articles” which some of us wrote when participating in a Science Communication Workshop at ANU. If you want to know more about the Why and How, please see this post here.      

While the projects described are PhD projects that are on the way at RSES, the results (if they are described) in those “news articles” are by no means final and can be described from “That`s my current interpretation of my data that I came up with last night and I haven`t tested yet” to “Wishfull thinking”.

The aim of this series is to provide you with a glimpse of the diversity of ongoing Earth Science research at ANU, not to present final results.

And now, without further ado …


Unravelling the Mysteries
of the Inner Earth


By Jennifer

New research into the workings of the inner Earth is being conducted at the Australian National University by graduate student Jennifer Prichard. Ms. Prichard says “The research will provide a unique insight into a part of the Earth which is otherwise impossible to study, and will help us understand just what the inner Earth is made of”.

The chain of volcanos that are collectively known as the Hawaiian Islands will be a case study for the deep-Earth research. This chain of volcanos display a bizarre chemical pattern that is still baffling scientists: the entire north-east side of the island chain is distinctly different from the south-west side.

hawaiian islands_jennifer
The Hawaiian Islands – a chain of volcanos.

This sort of pattern is not typical, and it is often assumed that the chemistry of lavas should be fairly uniform among volcanos that seemingly have the same source. It is possible that this pattern is caused by the presence of two different chemical groups nearly 3000 km deep in the Earth.

Ms. Prichard has stated “by analysing Hawaiian lavas, we will be able to tell at what depths this differentiation occurs. We have good evidence so far that it does occur very deep in the Earth”.

If her hypothesis is correct, it could have significant implications for our fundamental understanding of what the centre of our Earth is made of, and may reveal previously unimagined Earth processes.

Lab Lava: The hottest geology experiment around

By Nick


Oh my this is so cool, and by cool I mean 1600 degrees hot! A project at Syracuse University in the states is melting basalts and then pouring them down slopes, creating man-made lava flows. Its known as the lava project and its so awesome!

The project is a collaborative piece between geologist and a sculptor. But they are getting some really interesting scientific results, learning more about the interactions between lava flows and the surface they run over. For example, how lava flows interact with ice is important for learning how icelandic lava flows might behave. They are even publishing papers in geology from all the cool stuff they are learning. They’ve been trying different viscosities, adding crystals to the mix, all sorts of things.

One thing that is proving difficult though, is getting dissolved gases involved. Real-world lava flows involve a lot of escaping gas, which of course is hard to get back into the lava, when you melt basalts which have already degassed millions of years ago!

More details on the project can be found here, or try here for a decent article! There are videos abound! This looks like the ice video here:

Also: 666 posts for OnCirculation, with this one being written (but alas not published) on Halloween! Spooky.

Volcanic vent pops up at Rome’s airport

By Chops

Thanks to the wonders of social media, I just noticed a small volcanic vent (a fumarole) has popped up right near Rome’s airport. Footage of the little vent in action is shown here:

In terms of discussion about this, there hasn’t been a heap getting out there since the fumarole was noticed on Saturday. The most detailed news report so far is by the Telegraph in the UK ( and a tiny  bit more technical info is given by but there’s not too much more information out there (and I’m also far from a vulcanologist, so I won’t add any more of my own commentary).

In any case, it’s a cool little display of our active planet. We often forget that it is actively forming and deforming, and these geological phenomena popping up are a great reminder. Even if it does turn out to be from rotting organic matter underneath the ground (which is the other postulated source for it), it’s a good chance to at least reflect on our active planet, anyway :).

Pavlof’s Volcano definitely erupting confirms ISS.

By Nick

Last week there was an amusing situation where some data was suggesting Pavlof’s volcano was about to erupt (seismometers), and then was erupting (thermal imaging), but people on the ground couldn’t confirm it, because, as the volcano is in Alaska and it was a bit cloudy. It cleared up a bit and the eruption was confirmed. Well, the folks on the International Space Station have produced some stunning shots (via of Pavlof’s volcano erupting and the plume spreading for 100s of kms.


Volcano observation from the ISS is actually a very handy tool, as most remote sensing satellites work only in a top down approach. The ability to have a human able to recognise something and look at it from side-on is still quite powerful!


Here’s to that great combination of stunning and deadly.


Note the Slate website have been stealing my obviously original jokes. :p

Volcano Tourism – Mt. Aso

Aso Caldera
Aso Caldera

By Evan

As mentioned in my last post, I currently am spending some time in Japan, in Kumamoto, Kyushu (i.e. southern Japan). The major attraction of Kumamoto, besides the ubiquitous Kumamon, is without a doubt Mt Aso. The Aso caldera (essentially a giant hole caused by the collapse of a volcano after an eruption, or more violently from an actual eruption) is one of the largest in the world. The signs on the volcano claims this is the largest caldera in the world, but I suspect that Toba is actually larger. Being inside of the caldera is impressive, like the inside of a steep bowl. The caldera formed in four major eruption episodes between 300,000 and 90,000 years ago, with the final eruption causing the majority of it. Here are some pictures of my visit from last weekend. Continue reading “Volcano Tourism – Mt. Aso”

Pavlof’s Volcano will erupt when bell is rung

By Nick,

Unfortunately its Pavlov’s Dog, and Pavlof Volcano, but it would have been such a good joke.

Over sixty volcanoes erupt on earth every year, but most of these are underwater, or in countries where the media cycle is less than the 24 hour constant barrage we face in the west. So hooray for volcanoes blowing up in the United States*, or about to, or maybe. Still. News is out today that seismic activity around Pavlof volcano has increased, signalling that an eruption is on the way. Pavlof is located on the Alaskan peninsula and is one of the more active volcanos in the region, with close to 40 known eruptions.

And it may already have started. Its also quite hot, as you can see from one very white pixel in this satellite image.

I like a good eruption, but lets hope the community of Cold Bay, who can’t currently see the volcano as its cloudy, aren’t harmed.

Update: it appears to have cleared up a bit and an ash cloud can now be seen.

"A thermal anomaly is likely the result of new lava at Pavlof"
“A thermal anomaly is likely the result of new lava at Pavlof”

Another volcano is also on the orange alert level, a bit further out in the Aleutian Islands. Unfortunately Cleveland volcano doesn’t have seismic instruments, but satellite imagery shows us it had a small eruption earlier in the month.

You can check out all the latest info at the Alaska Volcano Observatory at: where you can check out cool things like predicted ash cloud trajectories.

* now there’s a statement that will get your blog read by the CIA

Plosky Tolbachik: Pictures of fire and ice

imagesBy Claire

I absolutely love images of erupting volcanoes, especially when they occur in ice covered mountains. Any lucky for me, today’s blog post includes both of these things!

The Plosky Tolbachik volcano in east Russia has been erupting since November last year after being dormant for 35 years.

New images have emerged of lava flows from this volcano, moving through ice covered slopes. The images are quite spectacular and are making news headlines around the world. Continue reading “Plosky Tolbachik: Pictures of fire and ice”

Deepest Undersea Vents Discovered

Black Smoker in the Cayman Trough (
Black Smoker in the Cayman Trough (

by Brendan

Last night I came across a BBC article showing that a team of UK scientists have discovered a field off hydrothermal vents almost 5 km below the ocean surface in the Cayman Trough, part of the Caribbean Sea.


These hydrothermal vents (often known as Black Smokers) are formed on the sea floor near plate boundaries where superheated water escapes from fissures in the Earth’s surfaces. Continue reading “Deepest Undersea Vents Discovered”

Stories of Subduction

By Nick

OxfordSparks is a great website run by the University of Oxford designed to showcase their research in an accessible way to the general public, so it is well worth a look. Every so often, they commission an animated video. Their latest piece is Earth Sciences related, hooray!  Its called Underwater Volcano Disaster and is narrated by comedian Ed Byrne.

The scientist behind the animation, Prof. David Pyle, taught me for a couple of volcanology courses during my undergrad years. He was perpetually enthusiastic about his subject and the interest of his students. So much so that I really considered volcanology as a discipline for me to study, just before I discovered how amazing paleoclimate can be. Despite my switch to the world of ice, forams and stalagmites, I still have a fondness for volcanology, and indeed, part of my research involves trying to trace historical eruptions using paleoclimate methods and materials.

Increased White Island volcanic activity

White Island, NZ Photo: Helen Cocker
White Island, NZ
Photo: Helen Cocker

By Helen

Over the past few days there has been increased levels of volcanic activity on White Island, New Zealand’s most active cone volcano.  This follows a period of lava dome eruption in December 2012 and an eruptive episode in August 2012.  In the last few days there has been an increase in the hydrothermal activity of the lake on the island and the aviation colour code has been changed to orange. Continue reading “Increased White Island volcanic activity”

From the archives: Volcanic eruptions and sea ice expansion explain the Little Ice Age cold event

By Evan Gowan (originally posted 2nd February 2012)

Langjökull glacier in Iceland. Image sourced from:ökull glacier in Iceland.

The BBC reports on a new paper from Miller et al. (2012), which gives
evidence that the Little Ice Age cooling event may have been triggered
by a series of volcanic eruptions over a period of 50 years. The Little
Ice Age cooling event coincided with a drop in northern hemisphere
temperatures, which resulted in the growth of glaciers due to decreased

Most northern Hemisphere glaciers reached their maximum position during
the Little Ice Age. A detailed history of glacier advance can be
determined by radiocarbon dating organic material, such
as trees and moss, that were buried when glacial ice advanced. For the
Miller et al. study, the age 147 samples from areas located in northern
Canada and Iceland were used to determine the history of ice advance
during the Little Ice Age. The dated samples clustered between 1275 and
1500 AD, with two distinct peaks at 1275-1300 AD and 1430-1455 AD. Few
of the samples were younger than that, reflecting the sustained position
of the glaciers at their maximum position until they began melting
during the past 100-150 years. There were several samples that had dates
that were older than 1000 years, indicating that the glaciers used in
this study have melted further that their position during the Medieval
Warm Period
. The first main peak and the initiation of the Little Ice Age coincided with four major volcanic eruptions, possibly from volcanoes in tropical regions. The second peak coincides with a major eruption that happened in 1452 AD in Vanuatu.

Continue reading “From the archives: Volcanic eruptions and sea ice expansion explain the Little Ice Age cold event”

From the archives: The Kermadec Arc Explained

Black Smoker vent in the Atlantic (Source:

by Brendan (originally posted 17th May 2012)

Earlier this week, Mike and myself wrote about a period of dramatic growth of the Molowai submarine volcano, part of the Kermadec arc to the north of New Zealand. This morning I came across a good video from 3NewsNZ that describes the Kermadec arc/trench environment and includes many of the features that make science videos cool, including black smokers, false colour bathymetry, strange marine life forms and  even sharks.

You can find the video here –

From the archives: What do Chocolates and Diamonds have in common?

by Brendan (originally posted 25th May 2012)

Pelletal Lapilli with a diamond core (Source:

Today I came across an interesting headline – Chocolates and diamonds: Why volcanoes could be a girl’s best friend, seems like an unusual combination to me, so I investigated further. It turns a team from the UK, led by Thomas Gernon have been investigating the formation of pelettal lapilli, which are small pieces of rock surrounded by quenched juvenile magma, or in simple terms a piece of rock coated in lava. These are commonly found within kimberlites, which are the major source of diamonds, with this study focusing on kimberlites in South Africa and Lesotho. Continue reading “From the archives: What do Chocolates and Diamonds have in common?”

Not-so-Serious Sunday 30

by Brendan

It has been a few weeks since I have posted a volcano video, so I thought I’d find one. This one shows lava pouring into the sea on the coast of Hawaii.

For our Australian readers: Channel Nine/win is showing the David Attenborough documentary “Frozen Planet” at 6.30pm on Sunday, should be a nice relaxing way to end the weekend.

Atmospheric Aerosol Dance Party

By Nick

The good people at NASA are once again, trying their hand at some animations. Following the Van Gogh-esque perpetual ocean video, this latest release from the Goddard Global Modeling and Assimilation Office has a more atmospheric feel to it. This psychedelic video shows a trace of the world’s aerosols between August 2006 and April 2007.

View the original video here from NASA – high res, large file size version.

The data comes partly from the 30 million odd observations made of the atmosphere each day, but this isn’t enough so a model (GEOS-5 and GOCART) is used to fill in the gaps and create this cool visual.

Continue reading “Atmospheric Aerosol Dance Party”

Tongariro erupts with a cough

Eruption of Tongariro on November 21, 2012 (Image:

by Helen Cocker

Following the Ph.D. student field trip in the South Island of New Zealand, I headed to the North Island for some family time and a friend’s wedding.  After hearing on Friday that Mt. Ruapehu, a volcano in the centre of the North Island, has an increased likelihood of eruption I was quietly hoping that there would be an eruption before I returned to Canberra a few days later.

So after several days of increased news focussed on Ruapehu we got our eruption. Except that it wasn’t Ruapehu that blew.  It was one if its neighbours, Tongariro, and it was more of a cough than a great eruption.  And sadly I was already back at my desk at RSES. Continue reading “Tongariro erupts with a cough”

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