Lava flow dynamics

We are using laboratory, field and remote sensing measurements of active lava flows to address questions such as:
  • Can the role of degassing-driven crystallisation be quantified?
  • What are the critical processes in lava tube formation?
  • When and where will ephemeral vents form?
  • Can we measure changes in important flow properties, such as rheology, in order to improve flow models?
  • How do variations in the rate of lava flow affect the evolution of flow fields?

Recent projects

Related publications

See below for time-lapse footage associated with some of this work.

Time-lapse footage

Footage taken at Mt. Etna, Sicily, using Canon EOS 300D or 450D cameras, either for short lengths of time while we were in the field, or from remote cameras that operate throughout most of the year. Camera installations were assisted by Harry Pinkerton, Neil Slatcher and Jane Applegarth, under some rather variable weather conditions....
  • Etna eruption 2011Etna 2011 activity from the new vent on the South East Crater. Image interval 15 mins., duration 12 hrs. Spectacular fountaining, with flows cascading down the headwall of the Valle del Bove.

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  • Etna lava 2009Gentle lava effusion at Etna during 2009. Time-lapse taken over 10 days, looking towards the headwall of the Valle del Bove. Fusing these time-lapse data with lidar topography allows flow advance rates to be quantified and rheology estimated (Applegarth et al., 2011; James et al., 2011)

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  • Etna lava 2008'A'a flow front (2008) in the Valle del Bove. Image interval 1 min., duration ~2 hrs. People for scale. This is one sequence of a stereo-pair that were used to obtain the 3D evolution of the flow (James & Robson, in prep.; Robson & James, 2007; full paper).

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  • Etna 2008 lava pulsesPulses of lava descending steep channels in the headwall of the Valle del Bove during the 2008-9 eruption of Mt. Etna. Images taken with an adapted Stealthcam over a period of a week (James et al. 2010), of which, one night is shown here.

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  • Etna lava 2004 thermalThermal time-lapse imagery of advancing 'a'a lava in the Valle del Bove. The flow fronts are fed by lava channels that descend the headwall of the valley (top of the frame). As the clip progresses, a pulse of lava is seen descending the channels and overflowing the levees (James, et al. 2007; 2006).

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  • Etna lava 2004An 'a'a lava flow front, approximately 7 m tall, advancing slowly near the end of its life (2004). Image interval 30 sec., duration 20 min..

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Combining time-lapse and topography

Ongoing work is based on Mt. Etna, Sicily, where we have been integrating thermal imagery and remote time-lapse camera data with 3D topography in order to quantify flow processes during effusive eruptions. For close-range sequences (e.g. covering the death (or was it? - low-res time-lapse video, or high-res version from here) of a bocca) topography can be derived using computer vision 'structure-from-motion' (SfM) techniques.

Time-lapse, topography and flow velocities

Map of small bocca


Left: Map of an active area of Etna's lava flow field (2009), with two active flow channels (F1, F2) erupting from tumulus T1. Dashed lines indicate field of view of time-lapse camera from which image below was taken.


Below: Extract of one of the time-lapse images overlain with a colour-coded pixel displacement map highlighting lava flow in the F1 channel. Combining the imaging geometry with topogaphic data allows the pixel displacements to be converted into 'real' velocity vectors. See time-lapse and topography fly-through here.

From James et al. (2012). Lava channel roofing, overflows, breaches and switching: insights from the 2008-2009 eruption of Mt. Etna, DOI: 10.1007/s00445-011-0513-9

Lidar and time-lapse sequences

For long-range imagery (i.e over several kilometres) terrestrial or aerial LiDAR can be used to provide topographic data. Combining topography and imagery is carried out using photogrammetric principles implemented in MATLAB. Such work has enabled improved comparison between ground based thermal imagery and satellite data through rectification of thermal mosaics. Photogrammetric approaches and 'optical flow' based image measurements have also been able to estimate lava rheological parameters and quantify flow variability.


Thermal imagery, time-lapse and lava rheology

Map of small bocca


Left: Thermal image data draped over very-long-range TLS topograpy acquired with a Riegl LPM-321 during the Etna 2009 eruption. Topographic change indicates the areas of flow field growth between surveys, the thermal data indicate the currently active channels. From James et al. (2009) DOI: 10.1029/2009GL040701, see also Coppola et al. (2010). DOI 10.1007/s00445-009-0320-8


Right: Combining photogrammetry and optical flow to determine lava rheology. Channel topography (cross sections in left panel) was ascertained using ground-based photogrammetry when the channel was nearly drained. When full, thermal time-lapse imagery allowed optical flow to be used to determine surface velocities. Combining the two allowed different rheological models to be assessed. From James et al. (2007). DOI: 10.1029/2006GC001448

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