Tag Archives: Lava

Walking on Lava (Flows)

A cascade along the Split Rock River, in Split Rock State Park (Minnesota).  Cascade is 2-3 m tall, and the lava is cold enough to touch.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
A cascade along the Split Rock River, in Split Rock State Park (Minnesota). Cascade is 2-3 m tall, and the lava is cold enough to touch. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

On a conference call some weeks ago, Nigel Jolly, captain of the RV Braveheart which will be taking the Heard Island expedition to Heard Island in March and April, 2016, told the expedition members that they will be expected to be in good physical shape for this expedition. Specifically, he reminded us that not only will we need to be able to walk around on the uneven and slippery ground, but that we will need to do so while carrying heavy things (potentially fragile and expensive, and generally needed for a successful expedition). In order to prepare ourselves, we are to get out and try walking around with heavy stuff on uneven ground.

Naturally, my first thought was that he just told me I needed to go backpacking on the north shore of Lake Superior. Don’t twist my arm too hard!

I called my cousin, who I figured would also probably need some arm-twisting to go backpacking on the North Shore, and we figured out the logistics. We even managed to reserve a hike-in campsite in Split Rock State Park that was right along the shore. Before we left, I checked through Roadside Geology of Minnesota to see if there were any special features besides the anorthosite (rock almost exclusively made of the mineral anorthite, which is a feldspar) which makes up Split Rock itself, and I put a few places on the quick stop list for the drive home.

The geology along the Split Rock River did not disappoint. Here were lava flows, more than a billion years old (1 Ga). Along the river channel, columnar jointing was often evident (see the far bank of the cascade and the far canyon wall above). Most of the lava flows were massive. The opposite canyon wall in the photograph shows columns 5–10 m tall, which would have formed in a single flow. That’s a lot of lava! While hiking along, I was on the lookout for ropey pahoehoe flow-tops, but did not find any that I recognized.

Lava flows found along the North Shore are generally part of the North Shore Volcanic Group, and have an age of roughly 1.1 Ga. They were formed as part of the Mid-Continent Rift system, and now dip gently (~20°) toward the lake. Many of the flows are basalts (low silica, high iron), although there are rhyolites (high silica, low iron) in the area (such as Iona’s Beach).

Mid-Continent Rift system.  Volcanic rocks are in the striped regions, while the dotted regions indicate sediments derived from those volcanic rocks.  Not all of these rocks are at the surface; much of the area in central and southern Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas are overlain by younger sediments (e.g. glacial till, Paleozoic carbonates).  Image source: Nicholson et al., via USGS.
Mid-Continent Rift system. Volcanic rocks are in the striped regions, while the dotted regions indicate sediments derived from those volcanic rocks. Not all of these rocks are at the surface; much of the area in central and southern Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas are overlain by younger sediments (e.g. glacial till, Paleozoic carbonates). Image source: Nicholson et al., via USGS.

It was fun to get to see some igneous rocks up close in outcrop (I live on a lot of glacial sediments, and the bedrock is Paleozoic sediments). The backpacking definitely demonstrated that more such activities are needed, because my legs were quite sore by the end of the hiking and the next few days. However, we did have a gorgeous view from the campsite! In the photo below, you can see the gentle dip of the lava flows toward the lake. Obviously, the weather we had on the North Shore (quite comfortable!) was much, much better than is expected for Heard Island. I had a great trip, and hope to head back up some time for more hiking adventures.

A clear morning on Lake Superior.  The lava flows making up the points further down the shore can be seen dipping gently toward the lake.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
A clear morning on Lake Superior. The lava flows making up the points further down the shore can be seen dipping gently toward the lake. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

***
Nicholson, S.W., Cannon, W.F., and Schulz, K.J., 1992, Metallogeny of the midcontinent rift system of North America: Precambrian Research, 58 (1-4), p. 355-386. DOI: 10.1016/0301-9268(92)90125-8

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Geoscientist’s Toolkit: Gas-fired Tilt Furnace

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).

More on the lava project.