skip to primary navigationskip to content

E301: Why do lava lakes go up and down? (Lead Supervisor: Andy Woods, BP Institute and Department of Earth Sciences)

Andrew Woods (BP Institute and Earth Sciences) and Clive Oppenheimer (Department of Geography)

Importance of the area of research:

Lava lakes are in some ways the simplest volcanic system – they can be seen as the uppermost component of a plumbing system that brings magma continuously from a deeper chamber to the surface via a conduit. Lava lakes can also persist in the same spot for decades or centuries. However, observations of lava lakes at volcanoes in Hawaii, Antarctica and elsewhere show that their behaviour can be surprisingly complex. In particular, the lava lake of Erebus volcano in Antarctica exhibits a persistent 10-minute-cycle in which the lava lake level rises and falls, coincident with changes in gas fluxes and gas chemistry. As yet, we do not have a clear explanation of such cycles – this exposes gaps in our understanding of fundamental aspects of the transport and degassing of magma. Closing these gaps will go a long way in improving our understanding of how volcanoes work, and why they erupt in particular ways.

Project summary:

This project will investigate the underlying physical and chemical processes driving long-lived lava lakes. It will involve a cross-fertilisation of ideas from volcanology and fluid mechanics, using observations of real lava lakes as a basis for designing new laboratory experiments to understand the processes, and then taking the findings and hypotheses arising from the experimental simulations to inform field data collection. Through a combination of sophisticated multiphase experiments and challenging fieldwork the end point promises to deliver a new understanding of the eruptive behaviour of active volcanoes.

What the student will do:

The student will conduct experimental simulations of lava lake systems in a state-of-the-art laboratory facility, dedicated to multiphase flow research, and based at the BP Institute. These will be designed to investigate separate processes likely to be of importance in regulating the behaviour of real lava lakes, including gas-liquid separation and the effects of crystal suspensions. The student will also take part in fieldwork expected to include studies of Kilauea volcano, Hawaii. S/he will operate spectroscopic, thermal imaging and other equipment to obtain long time-series of observations of lava lake behaviour. The student will integrate findings from the field and laboratory studies, and build new theoretical understanding of volcanic systems drawing on underpinning mathematical principles.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Peters, N., Oppenheimer, C. Killingsworth, D.R., Frechette, J. &  Kyle P. 2014. Correlation of cycles in Lava Lake motion and degassing at Erebus Volcano, Antarctica, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, vol. 15, pp. 32443257, DOI:10.1002/2014GC005399.

Beckett, F. M., Mader, H. M., Phillips, J. C., Rust, A. C., & Witham, F. 2011. An experimental study of low-Reynolds-number exchange flow of two Newtonian fluids in a vertical pipe. Journal of Fluid Mechanics, vol. 682, pp. 652-670. DOI:10.1017/jfm.2011.264

Belien, I. B., Cashman, K. V., & Rempel, A. W. (2010). Gas accumulation in particle-rich suspensions and implications for bubble populations in crystal-rich magma. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, vol. 297(1), pp. 133-140. DOI:10.1016/j.epsl.2010.06.014

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project

Other projects involving the supervisor(s) listed can be viewed here:

Filed under: