A Brain Scientist and Volcanologist Investigate Why Some Volcanoes Turn Explosive

July 13, 2018

The magma that feeds volcanoes beneath Earth’s surface is a mix of solid particles, liquid melt and gas bubbles. Successfully predicting whether lava from an erupting volcano will ooze out slowly or in a sudden and potentially deadly explosion has long vexed scientists.

Now, a volcanologist and biomedical engineer at Columbia University have joined forces to understand how particle-level interactions influence a volcano’s personality. Einat Lev, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Elizabeth Hillman, a professor at Columbia Engineering and a principal investigator at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute, are recording 3D images of artificial magma in real time. The close-up view is made possible by the SCAPE microscope Hillman has developed to study how the living brain functions and regulates blood flow. SCAPE has been used to capture neural activity in the brains of flies, fish and mice at speeds 100 times faster than competing technologies.

Creating “magma” from some common household items — oil, acetone, glass beads and corn syrup — the team is investigating how different mixtures behave under varying conditions, and when they are apt to blow up. By understanding the physics of how particles, melt and bubbles interact, the research could lead to better models for predicting when a volcano will erupt and how explosively.