The ‘universal break-up criterion’ of hot, flowing lava?

Tool lets scientists examine changing behavior of low-viscosity lava

IMAGE

Credit: Image courtesy of T. Jones

HOUSTON — (Aug. 30, 2019) — Thomas Jones’ “universal break-up criterion” won’t help with meltdowns of the heart, but it will help volcanologists study changing lava conditions in common volcanic eruptions.

Jones, of Rice University, studies the behavior of low-viscosity lava, the runny kind that’s found at most volcanoes. About two years ago, he began a series of lab experiments and field observations that provided the raw inputs for a new fluid dynamic model of lava break-up. The work is described in a paper in Nature Communications.

Low-viscosity lava is the red-hot, flowing type one might see at Hawaii’s famed Kilauea volcano, and Jones said it usually behaves in one of two ways.

“It can bubble or spew out, breaking into chunks that spatter about the vent, or it can flow smoothly, forming lava streams that can rapidly move downhill,” he said.

But that behavior can sometimes change quickly during the course of an eruption, and so can the associated dangers: While spattering eruptions throw hot lava fragments into the air, lava flows can threaten to destroy whole neighborhoods and towns.

Jones’ model, the first of its kind, allows scientists to calculate when an eruption will transition from a spattering spray to a flowing stream, based upon the liquid properties of the lava itself and the eruption conditions at the vent.

Jones said additional work is needed to refine the tool, and he looks forward to doing some of it himself.

“We will validate this by going to an active volcano, taking some high-speed videos and seeing when things break apart and under what conditions,” he said. “We also plan to look at the effect of adding bubbles and crystals, because real magmas aren’t as simple as the idealized liquid in our mathematical model. Real magmas can also have bubbles and crystals in them. I’m sure those will change things. We want to find out how.”

Jones said pairing the new model with real-time information about a lava’s liquid properties and eruption conditions could allow emergency officials to predict when an eruption will change style and become a hazard to at-risk communities.

“We want to use this as a forecasting tool for eruption behavior,” he said. “By developing a model of what’s happening in the subsurface we can then watch for indications that it’s about to cross the tipping point and change behavior.”

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Jones is a Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and can be followed on Twitter @Thomas_JJones.

The study was co-authored by C.D. Reynolds of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and S.C. Boothroyd of Durham University, also in the UK. The research was supported by the UK’s National Environment Research Council and Rice University.

High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:

https://news-network.rice.edu/news/files/2019/08/0903_VOLCANIC-tj-lg.jpg?

CAPTION: Thomas Jones is a Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Rice University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. (Photo courtesy of T. Jones)

https://news-network.rice.edu/news/files/2019/08/0903_VOLCANIC-kil2306-lg.jpg

CAPTION: Lava from a fountain on Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano flows over a spillway into an established channel in June 2018. (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

https://news-network.rice.edu/news/files/2019/08/0903_VOLCANIC-spat2305-lg.jpg

CAPTION: Lava fountains at Kilauea in Hawaii created a spatter cone, which was estimated to be 180 feet tall in this June 2018 photo. (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

Links and resources:

The DOI of the Nature Communications paper is: 10.1038/s41467-019-11750-4

A copy of the paper is available at: doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11750-4

Thomas Jones, Rice Academy of Fellows: riceacademy.rice.edu/node/376

Wiess School of Natural Sciences: naturalsciences.rice.edu

Rice Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences: earthscience.rice.edu

This release can be found online at news.rice.edu.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

Follow Jones via Twitter @Thomas_JJones.

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 4 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

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Related Journal Article

http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11750-4

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