The volcano eruption in Hawaii is a great learning opportunity for earth science, chemistry, and the power grid. Humans have been observing the power of the earth since the beginning of time and eruptions are still unpredictable. However, we have learned enough about volcanoes to collect data and try to explain what is happening.
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These lesson plans include making models, making chemical reactions, and learning about generating power with geothermal energy. The event at Kilauea volcano and lower Puna is full of topics for classroom exploration: earth science with volcano, earthquakes, and tsunamis; chemistry with the gases and other substances being produced; and energy with the geothermal power plant. Safety during a natural disaster is another compelling topic.
Lesson plans include the study of how lava moves, magma and dikes, and volcano characteristics.
- Cake Batter Lava from Hawaii Space Grant
- Gelatin Volcanoes from Hawaii Space Grant
- Volcanoes from PBS Learning Media
- Current maps from USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
- Lava-flow hazard zones from U.S. Geological Survey
- Earthquakes on Hawaii island from USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
- NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center frequently asked questions
Students can learn about the different forms of power plants and their similarities. Puna Geothermal Venture near Pahoa on Hawaii island generated between ¼ and 1/3 of the electrical power for the island using binary cycle generation.
- Powering the US from TeachEngineering
- Geothermal Electricity Generation from Energy.gov. Hawaii’s Puna Geothermal Venture is a binary cycle power plant.
Hazards include the SO2 gas emanating from the lava erupting from the fissures, HCl coming from the lava hitting the ocean, methane gas from vegetation covered with lava, and H2S gas which could be released from the wells at the geothermal plant as it is inundated with lava. Terms to explore are vog (volcanic air pollution made of fine particles of sulfates), volcanic ash (small rock and glass particles), and laze (steam plume with hydrochloric acid and tiny needles of glass).
- What is a chemical reaction from Middle School Chemistry, American Chemical Society
- Dancing raisins experiment helps explain the lava boats forming in the lava river and at the ocean entry. From University of Wisconsin
- Air quality data from the Interagency Vog Dashboard
- Chemical safety card for sulfur dioxide from Centers for Disease Control
- Chemical safety card for hydrogen sulfide from Centers for Disease Control
- Chemical safety card for methane from Centers for Disease Control
An explanation of methane and the blue flames from geologist Janet Babb:
- Video of methane flames from USGS, 05.22.18
“With lava now advancing through lush vegetation along Kīlauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone, these explosions have become a concern. If you approach a lava flow that’s encroaching on vegetation, you risk being greeted by the blast of an explosion.” Read more here! Depending on how close you are to the advancing flow, your experience could range from hearing a far-away “boom,” to being thrown several meters (yards) across hard, abrasive lava as the ground beneath you disintegrates. Regardless of where you’re standing, the sound of these explosions is a call for your respect!
As a lava flow enters grassland or forest, all the biomass in the flow’s path becomes available for one or both of two processes: combustion and/or pyrolysis. Lava erupted at Kīlauea is around 2100 degrees Fahrenheit — about four times hotter than your kitchen oven’s maximum temperature. Most natural materials on the ground surface, such as grasses and shrubs, are immediately burned up (combusted) as lava covers the area. But the bases of large trees are often encased in lava, charring the outside trunk, but not completely burning the inside.
When lava advances across the ground, surface vegetation either burns or is buried before it can combust. Intense heat from the lava flow also radiates downward and slowly “cooks” the buried vegetation or subsurface plant matter (for example, roots). The lava temperature is high enough to accelerate chemical breakdown of biomass as it heats or distills the organic compounds (natural gas) from the buried grass, shrubs, ferns, roots, and other vegetation.
On Kīlauea, both producer gas and the gas generated by the lava flow consist of a mixture that includes methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide. Beneath molten lava, the gas mixture from “cooked” biomass invades subsurface passages, such as old lava tubes, and below ground cracks and voids. This natural gas, of which methane is just one component, combines with air in these empty spaces to form combustible gas pockets.
Recall from high school science that with the right proportions of fuel (such as methane), oxygen (such as air), and heat (such as a match), you can make fire. When the underground air-fuel mixture is between 5 and 15 volume-percent fuel, a spark—or heat from a lava flow—can ignite it. If ignition occurs in a constricted space, such as an underground void or old lava tube, an explosion might occur. This is similar to what happens in your car’s engine. As the air-fuel mixture is ignited in the confined space of the engine’s cylinders, the energy released ultimately propels you down the road. Likewise, if you’re standing above a subsurface void when it explodes, you might also be propelled—upward—by the blast.
Natural gas explosions (often called “methane explosions”) can occur beneath an advancing lava flow, thereby throwing molten rock into the air, or beneath old lava, throwing boulders, up to a yard (several feet) in diameter, skyward. The combustible gas mixture can seep into void spaces tens of meters (yards) from the margin of a lava flow, so it’s important to stay well away from active lava that’s moving through vegetation—especially lush vegetation like that on Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone.
Subsurface natural gas can also seep passively to the surface. With heat from molten lava, methane can burn with blue flames—like those recently observed on and near the current lava flows. Countless “methane explosions” have occurred during the past 35-plus years of Kīlauea’s ongoing eruption—and some have resulted in injuries to unwary spectators standing too close to hot lava on vegetated land. But it’s easy to avoid this hazard. Keep a safe distance—and respect any “booms” you hear. They’re trying to tell you something!” https://www.usgs.gov/staff-profiles/janet-babb
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- Cake mix, protractor
- Cutting board, stopwatch
- Notebook, paper for copying maps
- Unflavored gelatin, red food coloring
- Syringe, large pans
- Tea light candles, jar
- Colored pencils, paper
What is the science?
Content: Earth and space sciences, Earth’s place in the universe, flow of energy in earth’s cycles, geosciences processes, Earth’s materials and systems; use, synthesize, and develop models
Kilauea is a shield volcano. The crater on the summit is called Halema’uma’u which is over a supply of magma. In the 2018 event, Halema’uma’u lava lake dropped down over 1000 feet below the water table level. The rock walls have been collapsing, causing up to 3 eruptions per day of a huge steam and ash cloud. Further downslope is Pu’u ‘Ō’ō crater which formed during the 1983 event. The lava has drained out of the crater with a collapse of walls.
More than 20 fissures have opened in the earth south of the town of Pahoa in the Puna region, over 15 miles away from the summit. At first the lava was “old” lava, stored under the earth since the 1955 event. Then the lava changed to lava from Pu’u ‘Ō’ō, then eventually a mixture of Pu’u ‘Ō’ō and Halema’uma’u lava. Geologists use the chemical composition and temperature of the lava to identify its source. The lava takes two forms, pāhoehoe and ʻaʻā. Fissure 8 has formed a cone and has been pumping 6 to 9 million cubic meters of lava per day (about 6,600,000 gallons/hour!) into a river of lava that enters the ocean at Kapoho, about 8 miles away. Kapoho Bay is gone and new land is being formed by the lava (over 630 acres as of 07.13.18). A new ocean entry July 11 inundated Kalea destroying the warm ponds at Ahalanui State Park, beloved Kua O Ka La school, and Secrets surf spot.
I recommend taking some time to learn about the Hawaiian creation story, the Kumulipo. The goddess Pele is such a key figure and her power (mana) is an important cultural part of an eruption event.
Resource links for volcanoes
- Eruption Lens app from Philip Ong, geologist. Part of every sale goes to Leilani Estates event disaster relief
- Next Generation Science Standards
- 5E and 7E model for lesson plan
- Stories of Pele from Roberts Hawaii
- Pele from Kumukahi Living Hawaiian Culture
- Essay on Aia lā ‘o Pele i Hawai‘i by Kīhei de Silva
- Island is Born lesson plan for Maui by Kapuna A. Napua Barrows
Pele searches for a home from ‘Ōiwi TV educational curriculum
- Kilauea Summit Eruption, a USGS video from 2017
- Caldera Demonstration Model (flour and bike pump!), a USGS video from 2010
- 2018 Kīlauea Eruption Update from National Park Service (06.14.18).
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- Multimedia maps. United States Geological Survey. Volcano Hazards Program, https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/multimedia_maps.html.
- Wright, T.L., Chun, J.Y.F. ,Exposo, Jean, Heliker, Christina, Hodge, Jon, Lockwood, J.P., and Vogt, S.M., 1992, Map showing lava-flow hazard zones, Island of Hawaii: U.S. Geological Survey Miscellaneous Field Studies Map MF-2193, scale 1:250,000.
- USGS photo by D. Swanson. https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/multimedia_uploads/multimediaFile-2100.jpg