There’s just something about lava, isn’t there? It’s so smooth and almost silky-looking, especially when it’s the kind that crawls along the ground. It doesn’t even really seem to matter that it’s obviously going to hurt, there’s something that just makes a person want to reach out and…
Don’t. Simply put? Just don’t do it. Yes, it’s hot, and yes, it’s going to do some serious damage. But it turns out that it’s more complicated than that. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, there are around 1,500 active volcanoes in the world — and 169 of them are in the U.S. There’s a lot of reasons scientists might want to get up close and personal with them, but even the volcanologists who are always on the lookout for new ways to monitor lava flows and predict disasters are happy to let things like satellites do a lot of the heavy lifting (via Nature).
It’s better that way, because we see too often what happens when people and volcanoes get too close. In 2019, New Zealand’s hospitals were overwhelmed with burn victims caught in the literal fallout from the Whakaari volcano. Doctors described them (via The Guardian) as having injuries that it would "take months to years to recover from, with significant scarring and possible loss of function." And they didn’t even touch the lava.
Let’s talk about just what you’re touching
Not all lava is created equal, so let’s talk about just what it is. Magma, explains National Geographic, is what we call molten rock when it’s still underground. When the same stuff escapes to the surface, that’s when we call it lava. Pretty straightforward, right? So far, so good.
Lava can come in a ton of different speeds, shapes, and temperatures, and it’s all dependent on what kind of rock it contains. Specifically, we’re talking about silica content here, and simply put, that’s a common mineral we see more often — and more safely — in the form of quartz and glass.
The higher the silica content, the — to use a scientific term — goopier the lava is. Mafic magma and lava (like the stuff pictured) can have up to 63% silica, and that’s the kind of lava that looks like honey or peanut butter that needs a good stir. Then, there’s silicic lavas, which have a percentage of silica greater than 63%, and that’s the lava that just sort of lumps along instead of flowing. These are also the lavas that lead to the most spectacular explosions: They hold the gases inside rather than letting everything vent, so any time it’s one of those cone-shaped volcanoes doing something catastrophic, it’s usually this kind of lava.
How hot is lava, anyway?
Anyone wanting to touch lava knows they’re touching something super hot, but how hot is hot? The answer is surprisingly complicated, and it depends on what kind of lava it is. National Geographic says that mafic lava — the runnier kind — is the hottest, and that makes sense: It’s the most melty. Those lava flows are hitting temperatures of up to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and for a bit of comparison, Space says that meteors blazing their way through the atmosphere reach temps of up to 3,000 Fahrenheit.
Lava gets cooler from there, and according to the USGS, the color gives a pretty good indication of just how hot it is. Red lava is actually the coolest, and that’s just between 1,112 and 1,472 Fahrenheit. Slightly hotter is the orange — between 1,472 and 1,832 Fahrenheit — and then there’s the yellow, which clocks in at somewhere between 1,832 and 2,192 Fahrenheit.
Cooling lava is a shockingly slow process, and in spite of the fact that exposure to the air can make the temp drop by a few hundred degrees pretty quickly, the USGS estimates that it can take up to six years for a lava flow to completely cool to the center.
There’s one kind of lava that’s almost approachable
Volcanologists at Oregon State University say that there’s one kind of lava that’s "most approachable," but here’s the disclaimer: Don’t, because it could still turn into a reenactment of the fiery fate of Anakin Skywalker.
Pahoehoe lava is the kind of lava that flows very slowly, and as it moves, the surface starts to cool and a skin forms. That keeps most of the heat on the inside, but it’s still hot enough to make the air shimmer. If you’re wearing protective gear and approaching from upwind, that skin is enough to keep you from getting blistered and burned just from being in the vicinity, so… bonus?
Because that’s exactly what can happen if the lava skin breaks, or even if the wind shifts. Just being near it when that happens will immediately cause skin to blister and peel. And touching it? Here’s some food for thought. The American Burn Association says that it takes just one second of exposure to temperatures of just 155 Fahrenheit to cause third degree burns — and we’re talking about something around ten times as hot. Third degree burns are the kind that destroy skin and the tissue underneath, and require hospitalization and skin grafts to repair (via Medical News Today). And burns are just the start of the problem.
If you’re close enough to touch lava, you have another problem
So, let’s say someone does get close enough to touch lava. The heat from direct contact is just one part of the problem, and according to the USGS, the gases the lava gives off can bring a whole new world of hurt.
Gases given off by lava include things like sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. If those gases are trapped — or if the winds change and stop bringing our theoretical lava-toucher fresh air — it can definitely be deadly. Air that’s just 3% CO2 can cause dizziness and trouble breathing, and by the time that hits 15%, it’s lights out. The same principle applies to the other gases, too, and it turns out that it doesn’t take much to become deadly.
It’s such a bad health risk that following the 2018 eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea, toxic fumes were traveling as far as 15 miles. Residents fled the gases — which are called vog — and according to The Guardian, not even breathing masks and respirators can filter out all the nastiness. If it’s bad enough there’s a recommendation to get off the island, standing right next to it is definitely out.
Water can cool lava and make it not-so-dangerous… right?
What about a different state of lava — the kind that’s dropping into the sea? The pictures are always impressive, and when lava runs into the water, it kicks off a massive plume that’s surely cooling it and making it safe to touch… right?
Absolutely not, says Michigan Technological University volcanologist Simon Carr (via The Verge). It’s not as simple as, say, dropping a bit of melting candy into cold water and watching it cool into a lump. When lava hits water, it’s so hot that two things happen. First, the water boils away into nothingness, and the salt that’s left behind is super-heated. Then yes, the lava cools, but it turns into something called volcanic glass. That doesn’t sink — it shatters into tiny pieces that combine with the evaporating sea water to create a plume of laze. What’s laze? A super hot lava haze that’s filled with tiny glass particles and — thanks to some natural chemistry — hydrochloric acid.
Surely, not all the lava dissipates, right? Correct, says USGS volcanologist Michael Poland. Even as the lava cools, there’s another problem for anyone who wants to go touch it — the freshly cooled lava is incredibly unstable, and with the addition of a person’s weight, there’s a good chance that touching this lava would end with a potentially deadly dip in the ocean.
What if you dipped your hand right in there?
So, what if you didn’t just touch it, what if you stuck your hand right into the lava? Aside from being a terrible, terrible mistake, it would be, well, maybe not as painful as you might expect for a very disturbing reason. USGS research chemist David Damby says (via The Verge) that sticking your hand in lava would "destroy nerve endings and boil subcutaneous fat."
So, yikes. Let’s look at what that means. Healthline says that in addition to the first, second, and third degree burns that we usually hear about, there’s also fourth, fifth, and sixth degree burns. Fourth is characterized by damage that destroys not just skin but all the nerves and sometimes into the muscle. Fifth degree burns are burns that go all the way to the muscle, and sixth degree burns go right to the bone.
These burns are so bad that they don’t hurt. All the nerve endings are gone, so while it’s a much worse burn, the broken link between the burning and the brain means that it’s not nearly as painful. There’s a whole laundry list of complications, including an immediate loss of blood pressure, dehydration, shock, and low body temperature. Longer-term complications are things like organ damage and amputation… and that’s just fourth degree burns.
What if you fell in?
Scientists — like Concord University volcanologist Janine Krippner — say (via The Verge) that falling into lava is another one of those things that movies tend to get really wrong. And that makes sense — lava is much thicker than water, so it’s only logical that a person who fell in wouldn’t sink like they would if they fell into a lake. That person would just sort of sit on the top… and, of course, burn.
But it turns out that it’s not that simple. Geoscientist Erik Klemetti says (via LiveScience) that while that unlucky person was perched on the bed of molten lava, they’d ultimately meet their end when they burst into flames. That’s the running theory, and since it’s unethical to actually test it, there’s still some wiggle room for argument.
In 2002, German scientists chucked a nearly 70-pound bag of leftover food into lava. After falling 260 feet, it started to burn and caused fountaining — spurts of lava. That’s led to speculation that if someone fell from far enough, they — or rather, what was left of them — would sink at least a bit (via LiveScience).
Case Study: Anakin Skywalker
Since it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be trying this experiment in a practical way any time soon — ethics, and all that other stuff — let’s take a look at a fictional character who touched lava really, really hard: Anakin Skywalker.
Jeanne Cavelos suggests what would have happened if Anakin fell into a molten pit of lava, and it’s in "The Science of Star Wars" (via Scientific American). She suggests that laying on the lava might minimize the burn damage to just around 20% of his body, and speculates that lava’s dense nature — and the fact that he wouldn’t sink — was what saved him from completely dying. Still, the superhot air would cause burns in his respiratory system, making lung scarring and the need for a respirator a likely necessity. Cavelos likens that kind of damage to the breathing difficulties faced by quadriplegics — so extensive that the lungs can no longer inflate on their own. Interestingly, it’s the necessary breathing adaptations mean his speech and breathing functions operate separately, so kudos to detail.
The removal — one way or another — of muscle tissue and limbs would be so extensive that amputation might end up being a less painful option than reconstructive surgery, so while the actual lava scenes might leave something to be desired, the after-effects seem pretty plausible.
Cooled lava can still be dangerous
Think you’re being tricky if you wait until lava cools to touch it? It turns out there’s still dangers. In fact, USGS research chemist David Damby says (via The Verge) that the majority of lava-related injuries involve the cold stuff.
Why? Because while most people are smart enough not to go running across hot lava, cold lava is an entirely different thing. Damby says that cold lava crust is deceptively sharp, and just scraping a leg against it can cause some nasty wounds. When Concord University volcanologist Janine Krippner tripped and fell on cooled lava, she described the injury: "It healed, but I had a bit of a dent in my leg." It’s surprisingly common: A study published in Wilderness Environ Med looked at the injuries suffered by hikers and tourists in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and 59% were scrapes and cuts.
And this can have a bit of a domino effect. World Extreme Medicine says that salt water — like the water that’s all around Hawaii’s volcanoes and beaches — contains an impressive array of bacteria and "infective organisms" that are just looking for a way into the human body. Lava can help them with that.
Sometimes, lava touches you
Hawaii’s Big Island saw some serious volcanic activity in 2018, and Darryl Clinton was one of the residents who volunteered to stay behind while others evacuated. Clinton and his neighbors were taking turns putting out fires from flying lava rocks when one hit him.
Fortunately, he wasn’t alone — a friend got help and secured a tourniquet around his leg, even as he looked down to see his foot hanging off his ankle and bone sticking out — a sight that it’s safe to say no one could ever have to see. He described it to The Straits Times: "It was the most forceful impact I’ve ever had on my body in my life … I just wanted to live. I didn’t care if they cut my leg off or not. I just can’t believe it’s still there."
News outlets took the incident as a chance to remind those still left on — and visiting — the island that even a seemingly small piece of lava can weigh about the same as a refrigerator, and do serious damage. As for Clinton, he returned to his home less than a year later — with his foot and leg surprisingly still attached. He and some of his neighbors told Reuters that many didn’t have a choice, and had suddenly found their lava-covered properties were almost worthless.
Touching lava might bring down the wrath of a goddess
Touching — and disrespecting — the lava flows on Hawaii might have some extra disastrous consequences in the form of the wrath of a Hawaiian goddess. The National Park Service warns tourists that poking lava even from a distance isn’t just seen as disrespectful, it’s actually illegal. That’s because traditional Hawaiian beliefs say that the lava is a physical form of the goddess Pele, and you wouldn’t poke a goddess with a stick, right?
Pele’s home is thought to be in Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u crater, and she’s capable of both creation and destruction. She’s more than a goddess, too — she’s ‘ohana, or family, and specifically, she’s ‘aumakua, which means an ancestor that’s been elevated to the realm of the divine.
The illegality of interfering with lava comes from the legislature that outlaws "’possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing’ natural or cultural resources," which is exactly what the lava is. Not only are visitors told not to touch the lava, but it’s also suggested that anyone who wants to get near it should ask Pele for her permission first. When the lava — and Pele — is disrespected, that’s when things get ugly. In 2018, CNN reported that offerings were being made to the goddess in hopes of convincing her to prevent her lava from destroying homes and villages. One local explained: "Pele moves uphill, sideways downhill, opens up in your backyard. It’s totally unpredictable."
So, how do scientists handle lava?
According to the USGS, there’s a lot that scientists can learn from studies samples plucked from lava flows. They can even get a glimpse into what’s going on under the surface of the earth. Hawaii’s Kilauea erupted in 1985 and 1997, for example, and lava drawn from the two eruptions yielded some surprising findings. It had actually come from entirely different magma channels beneath the Earth, and Phys says that this can give some invaluable clues as to how volcanoes might erupt in the future, and what sort of surprises are in store for those who live around them. Isn’t science neat?
And no, when they take the samples, they’re not even coming close to touching it — not with all the protective gear that public and private funding can buy. Popular Mechanics says that the go-to method of choice for collecting lava is to use a rock hammer to break the slightly cooled skin of the advancing edge of the lava, then to scoop up a bit of the molten stuff inside. That’s dumped in a bucket to cool — which also stops it from reacting with the surrounding air and environment.
Bottom line: Leave lava-touching to the professionals.