Unlocking Magma’s Mysteries

Understanding magma’s behavior may predict eruptions and reveal historic landscapes

By: Ellen Beshuk

Sometimes magma calmly flows; other times, it explodes. Ph.D. candidate Ivana Torres-Ewert is figuring out why with her magma-making machine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). Her discoveries could help people know where to go when a volcano explodes and provide a foundation for further volcanic research.

While some of magma’s behavior during an eruption can already be predicted from theories and records, Torres-Ewert and her team are collecting rocks and conducting experiments to understand what happens when magma rises from under the surface.

“There are fundamental questions we don’t understand about volcanic eruption,” said UMKC professor and Torres-Ewert’s advisor, Allison Graettinger. “Magma rising to the surface presents a range of behaviors and can be explosive. So we are getting to the basics of what happens when hot magma touches cold things from rocks to very wet things.”

To mimic these events, Torres-Ewert uses a furnace capable of reaching 2372℉ –the melting point of steel– to liquefy 30 liters worth of a cooled lava rock called basalt. Her team then observes how the melted rock reacts with all sorts of inorganic sediments the magma would encounter in nature while changing one variable at a time.

Not only would this research have practical applications today, like predicting eruption behaviors, but it would also be the foundation for future studies of magma-sediment interactions.

“It’s fun to be on a project where we can tell that others are going to do things we don’t have time to do,” Graettinger said. “We’re addressing a fundamental ‘How Does It Work’ question, and we get to do it in a way that will benefit anybody who wants to ask related questions.”

Torres-Ewert and her team observe how their “homemade” magma interacts with sediment. Photo provided by Ivana Torres-Ewert and is licensed under CC-BY.

Along with making her own magma, Torres-Ewert is gathering samples from past magma sediment interaction with the help of a new geological mapping method developed by, UMKC undergraduate, Mya Thomas.

She travels to the volcanoes around Antofagasta, Chile with funding from the UMKC Women’s Council. While she collects many types of samples, she is looking specifically for basalt that shows unique interactions between magma and water.

Along with fieldwork, she also prioritizes learning from locals. Many of these communities have ancient tales, values and traditions that contain the rich history of the volcanoes for Torres-Ewert to learn from.

“I’m a scientist. I’ve never had to deal with people before, only rocks,” Torres-Ewert said. “So communicating and appreciating their stories and culture around these volcanoes can establish that we are sharing information rather than me just educating them.”

Practical skills like knowing the local language, Spanish, help her establish these relationships, but she also seeks to approach the communities with humility and friendliness.

Torres-Ewert’s interests started in geology, but she knew she wanted more opportunities to be outside and conduct field research. While taking geology classes, one of her friends happened to need an English-speaking person willing to study volcanoes in New Zealand.

From there, she was connected to another volcanologist to study in her homeland, Chile, where she continues her research now.

“I began seeing the place that I was currently living with different eyes,” Torres-Ewert said. “You wake up from your camp and there are like five volcanoes in front of you. After that, I could not go back, and was fully convinced that I liked volcanology.”

From here, she has hours’ worth of microscope slides, and pictures to gather data from, and magma-making experiments to conduct. She hopes her work will set the stage for years of magma discovery and encourage others to learn from the communities around their fieldwork.

Featured Image was provided by Ivana Torres-Ewert and is licensed under CC-BY.

Unlocking Magma’s Mysteries by Ellen Beshuk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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