15 Facts About Lava

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Every day, the news is filled with images of the lava flows coming from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Previously obscure terms like laze (lava and haze), vog (volcanic and smog/fog), and pahoehoe and a'a (types of lava flows) are becoming part of the lexicon. But how much do you really know about hot molten rock? Here are 15 fascinating facts about lava.

1. LAVA IS MAGMA ABOVE GROUND.

Magma describes molten rock when it's below the surface, while lava describes molten rock after it erupts. It might seem like a trivial distinction, but there are differences, especially after the liquid cools down. Both magma and lava produce igneous rocks when they cool, but underground magma tends to cool slowly and produce gigantic mineral crystals in a subset of igneous rock called plutonic. On the surface, lava tends to cool rapidly, creating tiny mineral crystals in a subset called volcanic. This means that the same source material can produce two different rocks depending on where it cooled; for example, granite and rhyolite are considered similar, except granite is plutonic, being formed underground, while rhyolite, created on the surface, is volcanic.

2. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA …

lava from an erupting volcano flows and explodes
Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images

The vast majority of lava out there falls into one of three types: mafic, intermediate, and felsic. They're also called basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic lavas, respectively. (There are other types, but they're very rare.) These three lavas are distinguished by their mineral composition, viscosity, and the amount of volcanic gases—like water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—dissolved in the liquid.

An estimated 90 percent of lava flows are mafic, consisting of around 50 percent silica (SiO2). This kind of lava has the lowest viscosity and gas content; it's the classic bright-red flow you probably picture when you think of lava. Intermediate lava, around 60 percent silica, has higher gas content and viscosity, causing it to explode. Mount St. Helens was an intermediate eruption. Even more explosive—but rare—are felsic lavas, which are 70 percent silica and have the highest gas content and highest viscosity, often exploding and producing bits of rock called tephra.

3. … AND DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA FLOWS.

Specifically, there are different kinds of mafic lava flow. The major types on the surface are a’a and pahoehoe, two terms that come from Hawaiian. A’a flows rapidly and loses heat, which increases the viscosity and creates a distinctive rough surface on the cooled lava flow as pieces start breaking off; the word may be from the Hawaiian for burn or stony. In contrast, pahoehoe is smooth and is frequently described as looking like a twisted rope because it moves more slowly and has a lower viscosity, so any breaks are quickly healed. The word may ultimately derive from the Hawaiian for paddle, to describe the smooth ripples paddles create in water. When an eruption occurs under the ocean, a third type called pillow appears. Aside from being underwater, pillow flows are frequently difficult to distinguish from pahoehoe.

4. THE SHAPE OF A VOLCANO IS INFLUENCED BY THE KIND OF LAVA INSIDE IT.

The more liquid mafic lava forms broad, gently sloped shield volcanoes, such as the main volcanoes on the Hawaiian islands. But that's not the only type of volcano this kind of lava can produce: Silica-rich mafic rocks can spray out in the air dramatically, landing back in the area they erupted from to create either a spatter cone, when the lava lands and remains liquid, welding the lava together, or a cinder cone, when the lava solidifies in the air and lands as rock. And if the lava comes from large cracks, it may form flood basalts (as mafic lava is also called).

The more viscous intermediate and felsic lavas produce stratovolcanoes (also known as composite), which are the classic volcano of popular imagination, like Mount Fuji, that build up steeper slopes.

Even more felsic lava leads to calderas, which are areas that erupted so violently the volcano collapsed into the now-emptied magma chamber, creating a large depression in the ground. (You may have even visited one: Yellowstone National Park, which sits above a dormant supervolcano, has a large caldera.) Very felsic lavas can also produce lava domes, which are formed when lava that has been degassed before an eruption piles up around the vent; according to the University of Oregon, the domes can occur in the craters or on the sides of stratovolcanoes and calderas—and sometimes even away from volcanoes altogether.

5. HUMANS HAVE BEEN FASCINATED BY LAVA FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS …

The earliest depiction of a volcanic eruption was thought to be 8500 years old, located on a mural in the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, in what is now Turkey. (Some say it's not an eruption at all, but a leopard skin.) But there may be documentation of an eruption that's many thousands of years older. The cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, located 22 miles from France's Bas-Vivarais volcanic field, date to about 37,000 years ago. Alongside the standard cave-painting animals, there are also unusual markings that look like sprays, which led some French researchers to speculate that these are likely depictions of a previously unknown volcanic eruption.

6. … AND HAVE TRIED TO STOP IT FOR CENTURIES.

lava flows through metal fence
USGS via Getty Images

The earliest known attempt to stop the flow of lava was in 1669, when Mount Etna erupted on the island of Sicily. Diego Pappalardo of Catania led a group of men to open a hole in the hardened side of the lava flow; the idea was that the lava would flow out the side hole, away from their town. This was at first a success—at least for the residents of Catania. But was a potential disaster for the people of Paterno, who realized the rerouted flow was now threatening their town. They chased Diego and his men away. The hole they'd made in the hardened lava soon clogged, and the lava resumed its original path towards Catania, where it met the city wall. The wall apparently lasted several days before it failed, and lava entered the city. Sicilians had better luck in 1983 and 1992, when their attempts to divert lava flow from Mt. Etna using earthen banks and concrete blocks were moderately successful. Iceland, too, managed to contain some damage from a 1973 eruption by spraying lava with seawater.

7. WE TRIED TO BOMB LAVA INTO SUBMISSION.

In 1935, the U.S. Army bombed a lava channel on Hawaii's Mauna Loa to divert the flow heading towards Hilo. It didn't work. They tried again in 1942 during another eruption of Mauna Loa—and it still didn't work. However, a few days after the 1942 bombing, there was a natural collapse on the volcano that brought the lava flow to a halt. In theory, bombing a channel can make the lava slow down and do less damage to cities because lava moves fastest when contained in a channel or a lava tube, while lava that flows in a broad fan is much slower and cools faster.

This knowledge inspired yet more experimentation three decades later, in 1975 and 1976, when the Air Force dropped aerial ordnance on ancient lava fields on Mauna Loa to see what would happen. They found that spatter cones were particularly vulnerable to bombing. In a report, the Air Force concluded, "Modern aerial bombing has a substantial probability of success for diversion of lava from most expected types of eruptions on Mauna Loa's Northeast Rift Zone, if Hilo is threatened and if Air Force assistance is requested." Despite this assertion, the technique has never been attempted again.

8. THE CAUSE OF HAWAII'S VOLCANISM IS MYSTERIOUS.

In general, volcanoes form near the edges of plates and are side effects of plate tectonics, but Hawaii is thousands of miles from a plate boundary. To explain this and similar anomalies, geologists proposed the "hot spot" hypothesis. The idea is that a plume of extremely hot material comes from the core-mantle boundary and shoots up, punching a hole in the crust and creating islands like Hawaii. Later refinements to this theory proposed that the plume is more or less stationary, and as the crust moves over the plume it creates features like the Hawaiian island chain.

But as Earth magazine explains, this has proven easy to propose and nearly impossible to verify. Critics complain that as contradicting data has emerged, the hot spot hypothesis has become so flexible that it has stopped actually being useful. Instead, a new hypothesis ties these mid-plate features to plate tectonics. In the case of Hawaii, because the Pacific plate is subducting, or going beneath, other tectonic plates in both Asia and parts of North America, it's starting to crack—and thanks to local mantle conditions the Hawaiian volcanoes are forming. Even as the eruption is nightly news, the cause of volcanism in Hawaii is undergoing renewed debate.

9. IT'S PRETTY EASY TO OUTRUN A LAVA FLOW …

people on road in hawaii taking photos of lava from kilauea volcano
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, researchers from the University of Bristol looked at volcano fatalities between the years 1500 and 2017. Of more than 214,000 deaths they recorded, only 659 could be attributed to lava flows, because, they wrote, "lavas normally advance slowly, allowing escape.” The USGS says a typical mafic lava on a gentle slope flows at less than 1 mph; steep slopes and lava tubes increase that speed.

According to the Bristol researchers, what you really need to watch out for are explosions. "Sudden outbursts of very fluid lavas can cause loss of life," they wrote. "Deaths and injuries typically arise if escape routes are cut off, or as small explosions occur through interaction with water, vegetation or fuel."

Most fatalities could be attributed to "pyroclastic density currents"—basically hot gas, rocks, and ash moving at high speed—which were responsible for 60,000 deaths, or volcano-related tsunamis, which killed about the same number of people. Another nearly 50,000 people were killed by lahars, or volcanic mudflows of water and debris. The remaining deaths were caused by a mix of secondary lahars (which occur years after an eruption), tephra, avalanches, landslides, gas, flying killer rocks called ballistics, and—in nine cases—lightning.

10. … BUT THEY CAN STILL BE DEADLY.

The single largest loss of life from lava occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 when an estimated 100 to 130 people were killed by lava when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted. Situated near the city of Goma, the eruption displaced 250,000 people (another 150,000 are thought to have stayed) as lava flowed through the city streets and cut off parts of the town, including covering an estimated 80 percent of the airstrip at the local airport. Beyond its proximity to a major city, Nyiragongo is deadly because it's believed to have some of—if not the—fastest lava on Earth. A 1977 eruption of Nyiragongo created lava—an extremely low-viscosity mafic type—that traveled at an estimated 40 mph. The 2002 flow is thought to have been slightly slower.

11. BLUE LAVA ISN'T REAL …

Frequently making the rounds on social media are images of "blue lava" from the Indonesian volcano Kawah Ijen. Sadly, the amazing blue glow isn't actual lava. Instead it's caused by sulfuric gases that emerge at high temperatures and ignite, which then can flow down as a glowing liquid sulfur. Blue flames caused by ignited methane gas from burned plant matter are appearing in Hawaii as well.

12. … BUT BLACK LAVA IS.

The coolest (by temperature) lava in the world is at Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania. Lava generally ranges from 1300°F–2300°F (700°C –1250°C), depending on its composition. But the lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is only around 1000°F. It's also the world's only known active carbonatite volcano (a carbonatite is an igneous rock that's mostly carbonate minerals), which means instead of flowing red, the lava flows black and then solidifies white. The ultimate origin of the weird lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is still a matter of debate, but because it's responsible for much of the world's rare-earth element production, it's increasingly being studied for economic reasons.

13. THERE'S A RESTAURANT THAT USES LAVA TO COOK FOOD.

If you find yourself wanting a unique experience on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, there's a restaurant called El Diablo. What makes it unique is that the grill is placed on top of a 6-foot deep hole with lava at the bottom (although it's considered safe as the last eruption was in 1824). Dining here might be a better choice than trying to roast marshmallows over a volcanic vent, which the USGS strongly advised people not do, noting that even if it weren't dangerous to be near a vent, the sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide likely being emitted would make your marshmallow taste awful.

14. MARS MAY HAVE LAVA CHANNELS.

Whether the deep channels on the surface of Mars were caused by lava or water is hotly debated by researchers. It may seem like it would be easy to tell the difference, but in 2010, researchers analyzed a lava flow from 1859 in Hawaii and found features that looked very similar to channels on Mars that were thought to be carved by water. They concluded that fast and low-viscosity lavas could create many of these features that we thought were water-made. A 2017 study came to a similar conclusion on a different part of Mars, saying that what's traditionally seen as signs of rivers and lakes in one region "can be better explained by fluid lava flooding the channels and filling pre-existing impact craters."

15. CLEANING UP LAVA CAN TAKE MONTHS OR YEARS—IF IT HAPPENS AT ALL.

lava cools as it flows across a field in Hawaii
USGS via Getty Images

Returning a landscape to normalcy up after a volcano can be difficult. If a lot of ash has built up, proper care must be taken to dispose of the ash at a dedicated site all while avoiding inhaling glass, fine silica dust, and toxic gases into the lungs, which could lead to serious illness. Lava is even more difficult. According to Accuweather, contractors rarely fully remove the hardened lava, which can take months or years to completely cool. Even then, removing the lava—which is now rock—requires specialized tools. "In the Hawaii case, we are talking about lava that is incredibly sticky and viscous, and that is nearly 2000°F," University at Buffalo volcanologist Greg Valentine told Digital Trends. "No house can stand up to that, and even if it could, it would be partly or completely buried when everything is over." For these reasons, most people just start anew.

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
buxtree/iStock via Getty Images

The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
yanikap/iStock via Getty Images

Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
jessicaphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
Serjio74/iStock via Getty Images

The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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