Beyond baking soda: Demonstrating the link between volcanic eruptions and viscosity to all ages

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 4:20 PM
Iliya N Smithka1, Rachel L Walters1 and Karen S Harpp2, (1)University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States, (2)Colgate Univ, Hamilton, NY, United States
Public interest in volcanic eruptions and societal relevance of volcanic hazards provide an excellent basis for successful earth science outreach. During a museum-based earth science outreach event free and open to the public, we used two new interactive experiments to illustrate the relationship between gas content, magma viscosity, and eruption style. Learning objectives for visitors are to understand: how gas drives volcanic eruptions, the differences between effusive and explosive eruption styles, viscosity’s control on gas pressure within a magma reservoir, and the role of gas pressure on eruption style. Visitors apply the scientific method by asking research questions and testing hypotheses by conducting the experiments. The demonstrations are framed with real life examples of volcanic eruptions (e.g., Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980), providing context for the scientific concepts.

The first activity demonstrates the concept of fluid viscosity and how gas interacts with fluids of different viscosities. Visitors blow bubbles into water and corn syrup. The corn syrup is so viscous that bubbles are trapped, showing how a more viscous material builds up higher gas pressure. Visitors are asked which kind of magma (high or low viscosity) will produce an explosive eruption.

To demonstrate an explosive eruption, visitors add an Alka-Seltzer tablet to water in a snap-top film canister. The reaction rapidly produces carbon dioxide gas, increasing pressure in the canister until the lid pops off and the canister launches a few meters into the air (tinyurl.com/nzsgfoe). Increasing gas pressure in the canister is analogous to gas pressure building within a magma reservoir beneath a volcano. The lid represents high-viscosity magma that prevents degassing, causing gas pressure to reach explosive levels. This interactive activity is combined with a display of an effusive eruption: add vinegar to baking soda in a model volcano to produce a quick-flowing eruption.

These demonstrations were implemented in March 2014 at “Can You Dig It?”, a popular annual collaborative outreach event hosted by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida Department of Geological Sciences (>1,500 visitors). These experiments were also used to illustrate volcanic processes at the VGP Exploration Station, AGU 2013.