lava art

Researchers and artists collaborate to create a synthetic lava ocean entry.


Lava pouring into seawater during experiment. Credit: Karin Bjorkman.

When a rapid response team of scientists from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) returned from an expedition to investigate the effects of the 2018 Kīlauea volcanic eruption on marine life, they brought back new understanding and a few mysteries. Addressing one of their new questions required a unique collaboration—between scientists and artists.

As the world watched Kīlauea’s impressive display, oceanography professor and C-MORE director David Karl and colleagues were also keenly tracking satellite data showing the development of an algal bloom near the location where lava was entering the ocean off Hawaiʻi Island. A team was dispatched on the research cruise to examine the composition of the algal bloom and the nutrient cycling that supported its production.

The researchers confirmed elevated concentrations of silica, iron and phosphorus in seawater surrounding the area, as was expected because the lava from Kīlauea is rich in those elements, among others. As often occurs in science, the fieldwork generated further questions, in particular about the production and losses of nutrients associated with lava-seawater interactions. An enigmatic finding showed that near the ocean entry nitrate, a limiting nutrient for most Hawaiian waters, also increased despite there being negligible nitrogen in lava.

To assess whether nitrate could come from lava interacting with air and seawater, the research team collaborated with artists from the UH Mānoa Department of Art and Art History to create a synthetic lava ocean entry.

The scientists provided the art team with basaltic rock that was representative of the recent eruption. The artists, led by art instructor Linda Yamamoto, melted the rock to approximately 1200 degrees Celsius in a furnace typically used for bronze casting, then expertly poured the molten material into stainless steel beakers containing seawater.

“This project truly demonstrates the rich opportunities available at liberal arts educational institutions for multi-disciplinary collaborative research,” said Gaye Chan, chair and professor in the Department of Art and Art History. “The department is very enthusiastic about this project and looks forward to future collaborations.”

“We wanted to take a closer look at the reactions that happened in this dynamic setting,” said Sam Wilson, oceanography researcher and chief scientist for the expedition. “In particular, how lava causes changes in essential nutrients such as phosphate, silicate and nitrate that affect the growth of phytoplankton in the oceans. Linda and her student, Matt Adams, were wonderful collaborators and very helpful in setting up and executing the experiments.”

“Although we are still trying to determine the source for nitrate at Kīlauea’s ocean entry, we have gained a better understanding of the origin and evolution of algal blooms near active volcanic islands,” said Rhea Foreman, a research scientist in C-MORE involved in the cruise and experiment. “Further, this investigation provides clues about early Earth and the evolution of life, as one way to get vital nutrients into the ocean is through seawater-lava interactions.”

Lava experiments

Credit: Sam Wilson

Credit: David Karl