Last week at Heard Island, a pair of interesting atmospheric phenomena occurred and were nicely captured in the image above: gravity waves, and Von Karman vortices. Von Karman vortices have been mentioned here previously, and we will explore them in a little more depth later in this post.
Gravity waves are phenomena which occur when a parcel of air is moved out of equilibrium (e.g. lofted too high by a mountain) and then moves back toward equilibrium. The momentum of the air parcel will cause it to overshoot equilibrium (on both sides), oscillating back and forth across the equilibrium level until the energy is dampened and dissipated. This is similar to the wake of a boat, which will bring the water up and down until eventually it restores itself to an equilibrium level.
In the image, you can see the gravity waves formed by Mt. Dixon on the Laurens Peninsula, on the northwest corner of Heard Island (you won’t see the mountain, but that is where the waves begin). In the atmosphere, if the waves happen to take water through condensing/evaporating levels, clouds will form at the peaks and disappear in the troughs. The very nearest waves to Mt. Dixon are punctuated by these clear troughs, while further downwind there are still clouds in the troughs.
Another striking feature of the image is the Von Karman vortex street downwind of Big Ben, the volcano on Heard Island. Von Karman vortices are formed when the flow on the leeward side of the obstruction (here the volcano) becomes turbulent. The turbulence leads to eddy formation. Here, the eddies are particularly visible because, like with the gravity waves, some areas are evaporative and have no clouds, while others are condensing and do have clouds. As the vortex moves downwind from the island, gradually the eddies are slowed by viscosity and dissipate. Equilibrium moisture levels are also reached further downwind from the island, visible in the increased cloudcover.
When you need to make something really hot—1350 °C—a tilt furnace can be a great tool. This is especially true if you are an experimental volcanologist. At Syracuse University, faculty in the geoscience and art departments have teamed up to make actual lava flows on a small scale.
One of the major risks in studying volcanoes is that it can be hard to stay safe while studying them up close. This gets particularly true if there are interactions between the lava and snow or ice, which can cause flooding, explosions from rapid vaporization, and other unpleasant things.
However, by using a tilt furnace, small batches of rocks (basalt) can be remelted and poured under controlled circumstances. This allows studying what happens when lava flows over an ice sheet (video above), or even what happens underwater when lava comes up from the seafloor (video below), where structures called pillows are formed. Small-scale experiments like these can help scientists understand what determines which shapes the lava will take on under which conditions (slope, effusion rate, temperature).