Scientists risk their lives to sample volcanic lava

There are few things quite as tense as watching one volcanologist mutter, "Oh my god. He's crazy. He's crazy," while watching another volcanologist scramble around the edge of a caldera.

It only gets more tense when you realize that the volcano in question is Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which has some of the fastest-moving lava flows ever recorded. The key feature of Nyiragongo is that lake of lava in the center of the crater that you see in the video. In January 1977, the lava lake was 2000 feet deep. When the volcano erupted later that month, the lake emptied dry in less than an hour. Lava was clocked at 40 mph.

Video clip from the BBC's "Journey to the Center of the Planet"

More about the program this came from.

Via EstudandoGeologia and Chris Rowan


  1. “Lava was clocked at 40 mph.”

    The police are getting really cheeky with where they put those speed cameras.

      1. That was a box of hot dogs, not a camera in a protective casing.  That’s why he hung out there for 5 minutes, because he had to roast all of them.

  2. While I am certainly impressed at the nerd’s nerve, I have to wonder if they are really approaching the problem properly…

    The fine folks over in mechanical engineering, or even a decent robotics hobbyist forum, probably have a few ideas for getting close to lava that only run you a few thousand bucks if they catch fire, rather than having to replace an entire geologist…

    Catacopter is probably too furry for this one; but if a human in a tinfoil suit can survive, a fair few ROVs should also be able to.

    1.  The problem is that the cheaper robotics components that most bots are made off won’t survive operation in these conditions. Solder will melt, plastic too, gears will be filled with ash and frankly tires and treads won’t be able to move around on this surface.

      You’d have to build a lot of proprietary components to have the dexterity needed to get in and out and grab what you need via remote control and will cost a ton.

  3. Nyiragongo’s an especially dangerous volcano as it often erupts from fissures along the flanks rather from the main crater. Eruptions develop quickly, producing large amounts of lava and thick clouds of carbon dioxide which have asphyxiated many people. In a country with chaotic government and poor communications this is a recipe for disaster.
    In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted under the city of Goma, burying nearly a fifth of the city. The city’s airport was also partially buried. If you go to Google Maps you’ll see the top (northern) part of the runway is buried under rusty brown lava.

  4. I’m curious, why do they want/need a sample right from the lake itself? Once it cools, it’s the same stuff pretty much, minus maybe some trapped gasses. But you’ve got those blowing around everywhere.

    I mean, getting it would be nice, but I can’t see why anyone would risk their life like that just to get a chunk of the hot stuff.

    1. There are a variety of reasons. You do sometimes want gases (as you surmised). Also, after it erupts it can get mixed in with other debris and the like easily from around, so you don’t have as a good an idea what the initial composition was. Also, composition when still hot is connected to what sort of flow you get where details may be lost after cooling, and getting a better understanding of that could help predict the types of eruptions better and the give a better idea for what size evacuation zones are needed. 

      (Disclaimer: This is my memory on the subject from an explanation given to me a few years ago by someone who did this, and I may have had some alcohol in my system at the time. There’s a decent chance I’m either completely wrong or am forgetting some other basic issue.)

      1. That’s pretty much it.

        Grabbing lava from as close to the vent as possible and then quenching it in a bucket of water turns the lava to glass which keeps the composition almost identical to that being erupted.

        If they left the lava to cool naturally its composition would change since the different minerals in the lava crystallise at different temperatures, some of the high temperature minerals don’t travel far from the vent so a sample taken further away would be misleading.

        Knowing the composition of the erupted lava at source lets you know if the magma’s composition is changing through an eruption because the magma chamber has been fractionated, whether new magma is erupting from deeper in the Earth or if magma has been sitting around for a while at shallow levels.

    2. Volcanologists like to collect lava samples at regular intervals (with precisely known “times of quenching”) in order to track the changes in the chemistry of the lava over the course of an active eruption.  For example, scientists have been studying the Pu’u ‘O’o eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii this way since it began in January 1983.  These short term fluctuations in lava chemistry help us to understand things like the origin of the magma from partial melting of the Earth’s mantle, the geometry of the sub-volcanic magma plumbing system, and ultimately, the ability to predict the behavior of current and future eruptions from active volcanoes (thereby reducing volcanic hazards).

  5. A few years ago I was at an event that had a lot of grad students from different fields. One of them apparently had just gotten back from collecting lava samples while wearing that sort of protective gear and all. Apparently it is very hard to move in and you end up heating up a bit from that effort before you even start getting hot from the heat around you. 

    It really put things into perspective. I mean, I sometimes complain about having to teach first semester calculus when the students don’t want to learn, or complain about how my LaTeX won’t compile. Put things in a totally different perspective about what sort of things grad students can be stuck doing. 

    1. Frodo is marked as an essential character until the end of the Mt. Doom questline. He can’t be reduced below zero HP.

  6. The fools!  They angered the gods because they didn’t bring a virgin with them.

      1. But did they offer that virgin to the gods? No! They just went for the lava without giving anything back. Fools!

  7. Emergency procedures for vulcanologists who find themselves trapped by an eruption:

    1) make protective lava-suit from lava* [1]
    2) make lava-airplane from lava [1]
    3) have cake every morning! [1]

    * If there is an existing, but non-functioning lava-airplane, you may try to make a smaller, functioning lava-airplane from parts of the larger lava-airplane [2]

    [1] Sendak, M. “A Novel Method for Sudden, Unanticipated Evacuation”, Proceedings of the International Virgin Sacrifice Society, 1970 (see illus.)

    [2] Aldrich, R. ‘Fenix Flight”, Lava Aviation Quarterly, vol 128, 1965 (republished in a longer, but modified form, 2004)

  8. Fortunately the dinosaurs hadn’t respawned yet else the hike back to camp would have been dangerous too.

  9. Are there ANY nature shows out there anymore that don’t have Hollywood-dramatic soundtracks and narration? *sigh*

  10. You don’t do that for science – you could design a catapult & retrieval system easily.

    You do that to prove something to yourself.

  11. Could it be, I wonder, that the speaker is just full of poo? That the interviewer and he had a little discussion just before the camera turned on that went something like this; 
    BBC: “hey, listen. I paid this huge license fee for this stupid dramatic music. Do you think we could take some thrilling footage I could attach it to?”
    Scientist: “Not much going on around here, We got this thing under pretty good watch and know what is going to happen, Heck most guys put on the heat suit just to climb the up to the ridge and take a piss in the lava lake for a thrill. It is pretty pathetic really.” 
    BBC: “Hm? I’ve got this great lens that makes everything look far away. Would you mind hamming it up a little for the camera?”

  12. okay, stupid question: this lava is full of heat. where does the heat come from?

    (obviously the vulcanologist is full of win….)

  13. Dunno about other field sciences, but geology is often all about taking stupid risks. And it’s no coincidence that geologists who do field geology are usually interested in relatively extreme sports like climbing mountains and whatnot as well.

    If there’s something you want to sample or just to see up close, you’re going to go do it no matter what. Part of the process of becoming a geologist is learning how to manage risk in the field. It’s important because often you don’t have the option of going back someplace with proper climbing equipment or whatever, and being able to look at or sample something hard to reach is often absolutely key to your research.

    I almost can’t believe some of the stuff that I’ve done in the field. When you’re there, all you’re thinking about is getting to what you need to see. It’s more important than anything. This sort of short-circuits the normal part of your brain that would prevent you from doing risky things.

    Serious injuries are relatively rare, though I’m sure they happen. Every geologist has stories of their series of field injuries of course, often made worse than they have to be because you want to push on and complete your field work even while injured. Often injuries result from goofing off and taking risks outside the context of things you actually need to do. That’s certainly true in my case – my only relatively serious incidents were the result of goofing off (and I nearly killed someone when an enormous boulder dislodged from a place I was climbing and fell right next to someone so I don’t take these incidents lightly! – part of the learning process.)

  14. I know the point of this is: Brave Scientists but I couldn’t help hearing a possible internal monologue inside the suit: “Goddamn African research tech job, I wanted to study gorillas, fucking economy. Man, I’m hungover. I can’t see anything out of this suit. I can’t believe I have to climb up this huge cliff and I haven’t even had a cup of coffee. Oh well, get the sample… Oh my god, this lake is full of LAVA!!! FUCK!!! RUN!!”

  15. I used to live with a volcanologist. The number of documentaries, books and reading materials he had that were ‘Dedicated to the memory of….’ (usually a partner, sometimes the author) should tell you a lot about the profession.

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