January 18 – Pass The Marshmallows!

Today’s factismal: Lava-roasted hamburgers is a traditional meal for geologists working on volcanoes.

Let’s face it; geologists are weird. (Truth in advertising: I’m a geophysicist, which is just like a geologist only I do math. Back to the geologists…) They travel to exotic places in order to look at rocks and drink beer. They spend weeks in the field looking at rocks and drinking beer. And then they take their new rocks back to the lab where they look at the rocks and drink beer. And by doing this they have learned some amazing things about our planet (and others). With a little help from geophysics, they have learned how mountains form and why we have oceans (it all has to do with the density of the rocks). They have discovered what makes earthquakes and why planets are round. And most amazingly, they have learned how to cook with lava.

Geologists at work, measuring how fast lava flows (Image courtesy USGS)

Geologists at work, measuring how fast lava flows
(Image courtesy USGS)

Of course, the beer probably had something to do with the last. When you are out in the field for weeks at a time with nothing to look at but ricks and dirt-encrusted geologists, you start to look for a source of amusement. And cooking with lava is almost as amusing as it is dangerous; though there have been no deaths reported from cooking with lava, there have been a lot of near-misses. That’s because most people (geologists included) don’t have a good idea of what lava is really like. They think of it as being like really hot water because they see glorious fire fountains spewing lava hundreds of feet into the air.

A fire fountain in Hawai'i (Image courtesy USGS)

A fire fountain in Hawai’i
(Image courtesy USGS)

But what lava is like is really, really hot fudge. It is so hot that it literally glows; you know those elements in your oven that heat up and glow – yeah, just like that, only twice as hot. And lava is thick and sticky like fudge. If you were to stand on a thick slab of fudge, then you would slowly sink into it and you’d have a heck of a time getting it off of your shoes. The same is true of lava. It is sticky and so thick that you can stand on it for several minutes before you notice that you are slowly but surely sinking into a glowing hot mass of death. (This is why geologists laugh themselves silly when Gollum sinks into the lava – it just ain’t gonna happen.)

Two geologists standing near a lava flow (Image courtesy USGS)

Two geologists standing near a lava flow
(Image courtesy USGS)

But because lava is hot and oozes slowly, it makes a great way to cook hamburgers, provided that you are suicidally brave or so intellectually involved that you forget about the danger (either of which is a good description of your average geologist). The heat sears the hamburgers so that they stay juicy, and it is intense enough that they cook quickly minimizing the amount of time you have to spend next to an open oven that will roast you alive given half a chance. And so, when volcano geologists work near an active lava flow, it is traditional for them to cook hamburgers on it. To learn more about volcanoes and geologists, why not head on over to the USGS Volcano web site:
http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/

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