KIDS ASK! What Would Happen if You Fell in a Volcano?

Nyiragongo Volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo
Cai Tjeenk Willink (Caitjeenk)CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

What Would Happen if You Fell in a Volcano?

If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, you know that the ending involves a very famous, and very deadly volcano (if you haven’t seen it, we won’t spoil it for you).  In movies, games, and TV, fighting around volcanoes and even falling into them seem to happen a lot.  Fortunately, we know from volcano scientists, who have the very cool title of “Volcanologists,” that actually falling into an active volcano or lava flow does not happen very often.  This is partly because a Volcanologist studies when and where volcanoes are erupting to help keep people safe, and help them get out of the way of any volcanoes that might be dangerous.  However, it is a scientific fact that volcanoes are so hot and powerful that they can kill you very quickly, just not in the way that we see in movies.

You might be surprised to know that Volcanologists, who are specially trained after years of school, actually CAN walk right up to lava flows and even reach in with tools to take samples of super-hot lava!  Lava fresh from the eruption can be anywhere from a scorching 1,600 to 2,200 degrees F.  Volcanologists sometimes have to wear special helmets made with gold and special suits made with aluminum to reflect the heat, but even then they cannot stay near an active eruption for more than a few minutes.  However, there have been enough brave Volcanologists who have done enough awesome volcano science to be able to tell us exactly what would happen if you fell in to the caldera, or cone, of a volcano right into the lava there.

Movies and TV give us an idea that lava is like water, and can swallow you up just like when you go off a diving board into a pool.  That’s not really true.  Water is a liquid with high viscosity, which means it’s not very dense and it flows easily.  Lava is thick, gooey, melted rock, not water.  Its molecules are totally different than water.  It has what’s called low viscosity, which means it’s very dense and heavy, and flows pretty slowly.  This means that if you landed on most kinds of lava, you’d more likely just hit the surface and sink in a little bit, not go under completely.  But that doesn’t mean you could just walk across the surface and climb out! 

Volcanologists want people to know that the atmosphere AROUND a volcano can be just as deadly as the lava itself.  Although lava is scary looking, the invisible gases volcanoes can give off can be much worse for you. Because a volcano is bringing up all kinds of elements and compounds from deep in the earth, it means that there are many toxic gases around it, such as Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Sulfide , which can asphyxiate you, stop you from breathing, before you even get close to the lava itself.  Plus, the air right around and above the lava in a volcano is very, very hot.  It can be just as hot as the lava itself.  So, the scientific answer to this burning question is a little gross, but it’s true: if you did fall in a volcano, you would probably asphyxiate immediately from all the toxic gases in there, and at the same time, your whole body would burst into flames from the heat.  A volcano is SO hot that if you fell in, even if you fell for just a few seconds, only your bones and ashes would remain to actually land on the lava!

Volcanoes are very, very powerful natural phenomenon that have been shaping the earth and affecting human lives since the beginning of time.  They are an important part of the world we live in and if you are ever near an active volcano,  be sure to go with an expert guide and follow all of their directions carefully.  Most people don’t know that the gases and heat around a volcano can be dangerous too, but now you do.  So, thanks to science, you are now fully volcano-safe! 

Sources and Further Information:

How Volcanologists Study Lava:

A Volcanologist in the Field:

What Really Happens When You Fall into Lava:

More about Lava and Human Bodies:

What Really Happened in Pompeii:

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