Falling into lava would be a pretty hot mess

By Alessandra Potenza

As Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano keeps regurgitating molten rock, the US Geological Service continues to post amazingly terrifying photos and videos of lava spewing up in the air and taking over land. The lava is scorching hot, it glows bright orange, and it has the power to gobble up anything that crosses its path. So, what would happen if you touched it?

The lava coming out of Kīlauea is over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,170 degrees Celsius). “It’s much hotter than anything you’d get in your stove at home,” says Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. Dipping your hand into molten rock won’t kill you instantly, but it will give you severe, painful burns — “the kind that destroy nerve endings and boil subcutaneous fat,” says David Damby, a research chemist at the USGS Volcano Science Center, in an email to The Verge.

Now, falling into lava is another story. The extreme heat would probably burn your lungs and cause your organs to fail. “The water in the body would probably boil to steam, all while the lava is melting the body from the outside in,” Damby says. (No worries, though, the volcanic gases would probably knock you unconscious.) But unlike one of the characters in the 1997 film Volcano or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, you wouldn’t sink into the lava and liquefy like the Wicked Witch of the West, says Klemetti, who wrote about those scenes in a 2011 Wired article. Lava may look like a liquid, but it’s not like water: it’s too sticky and viscous. “So you’d be sitting on top of the lava flow,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University.

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