This article first appeared in Issue 1 of our new free digital magazine CURIOUS.
Some impulses are more dangerous than others – say, for example, the urge to ingest lava. Weird as that may sound, many half-joking posts on social media proclaim that lava looks very delicious, with users expressing curiosity as to how the blistering liquid rocks would taste and feel.
A Reddit post titled “God I want to eat lava so bad” states that “something in my brain tells me it tastes good”. Musician Jordan Keyes, in an ode to lava drinking, sings of an urge to “partake of yon spicy smoothie lake”. An article with the brilliant title “I want to eat the lava and God can’t stop me” by Frey Fife for Evidently Scientifical shows that even those who have studied volcanology are not immune to lava’s supposedly yummy siren song.
Of course, we do not encourage any of you to chug lava, and won’t do so ourselves, even for the sake of investigative journalism. Instead, we reached out to University at Buffalo Associate Professor of Geology and expert on planetary volcanology Tracy Gregg, plus Scientist-in-Charge at Yellowstone Volcano Observatory Michael Poland, with the most burning questions on this topic.
What would lava taste like?
Tracy Gregg: No idea. Your tongue would cauterize and kill your taste buds. Solidified lava would taste like a rock.
Michael Poland: Well, it's hard to imagine it tasting like anything, since it would instantly burn your tongue. And your whole mouth, really. Lava does have a smell – sort of acrid, and a bit sulfury (most of the sulfur gas comes out at the eruptive vent, but there is a little in the lava itself). And if it is true that taste is largely related to smell... Although that doesn't explain durian fruit at all!
What would the texture and/or mouthfeel of lava be (if we disregard the burning)?
TG: Again, no idea. Your cells would literally explode as the water within them superheated from lava contact.
MP: It's important to remember that this is rock. So even though it is a liquid, it has the density of a rock. Even when molten, lava is like taffy, and the crust solidifies rapidly.
How quickly would lava take to cool in your mouth and throat, and what would happen during that?
TG: It depends on what you mean by "cool," and by how much lava you are talking about. If it's a tiny bit of lava (half a teaspoon or less) it would form an outer rind of glass within a second or two, but it would remain hot enough to damage your flesh for several minutes.
MP: The outer parts of any bit of lava will solidify quickly. That doesn't mean it isn't hot. It's still hundreds of degrees, just no longer molten. The inner area of a cooling chunk of lava might retain some molten components for minutes, depending on the size of the chunk. Lava is a really wonderful insulator, and so it cools slowly once the initial crust forms. So in your mouth or throat, it would be hundreds of degrees, even if solid. If you've ever had coffee that is too hot, you know how unpleasant that is. Even a cooling piece of lava would be several times hotter than boiling coffee or tea.
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If you fell into lava like Gollum or the Terminator, would you feel it or die instantly?
TG: It depends on the height from which you fell. Molten lava is not squishy and splashy like water. I can jump up and down on molten lava (and have done so) and won't sink into it. Jumping or falling onto a lava lake would be like jumping or falling onto hot asphalt. If the impact doesn't kill you, the burns might.
MP: Interesting question. It sort of depends. If you fall into a gas-rich lava lake – one that is roiling and bubbling intensely – you would probably sink. All of that gas means that the lava is not very dense, and so you would probably be denser than the lava and you would sink and burn from the intense heat. You would not last very long. Probably not even seconds. But if the lava is not gas-rich... That would not be a good way to go. You probably would not sink, so if you fell into a lava lake, when you hit the surface, assuming the fall was not so high that you went SPLAT, you would probably have many broken bones and be lying on top of a surface that is basically like a skillet on a hot stove. You might last longer than seconds, lying on the surface, cooking to death. Not so pleasant.
What is your safety advice for handling or being around lava?
TG: Don't handle it. Stay well back: active lava can spontaneously release gasses and splatter hot lava on you, which will burn and will hurt.
MP: Well, as far as handling lava, don't. I've supervised people collecting samples in Hawaii, and first-time folks are very surprised at how viscous it is. It's hard to register that it is rock, even if it is a liquid. So occasionally people are unprepared for the fact that it can be like taffy. Being around lava demands vigilance. Know your surroundings, and be aware of what you are walking on. I've known many people, including geologists, who have laid their backpacks down on something they thought was "old" only to find their packs melted a few minutes later – they set the packs down on a flow that might have been molten just a few minutes or an hour earlier, but that cooled to the point that it looked older because the surface of a lava flow freezes quickly. There can also be breakouts from a lava flow, with little pulses of molten lava that move quickly over short distances. So you really need to be aware of your surroundings, don't turn your back, be constantly vigilant, and best not to set things down unless you know for certain that what you're on is old and cold (if there is vegetation growing, that's a good clue).