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Lava is molten rock which a volcano expels during an eruption: due to its high temperature, it is quite liquid when it is first exuded from the volcano, but soon solidifies into rock. While it is still below the earth's surface it is called magma.

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Lava streams

The most interesting products of an active volcano are the streams of lava which it pours forth -- sometimes from the principal crater on the summit--sometimes from the smaller craters lower down. This lava consists of melted stone. When it issues from the mountain its heat is intense and it glows like a furnace, so that, during the night especially, these fiery rivers present a grand yet awful spectacle. The streams spread themselves till they sometimes attain a breadth of several miles, with a depth of several hundred feet, and they flow onward till their length sometimes reaches fifty miles.

Lava, not being so liquid as water, does not flow so rapidly: nevertheless, when it is careering down the sides of a mountain, or where the slope of the ground is considerable, it advances with great speed. Even when at its hottest, it is somewhat viscid, like treacle, and this viscidness increases as it cools. Hence on a level plain, and at some distance from its source, the lava-stream advances at a leisurely pace. In such circumstances the cooling proceeds so quickly that a crust of considerable thickness is soon formed on the top of the current, and persons who are bold enough may cross the stream by means of this natural bridge. Even where the current continues flowing rapidly, this crust may be formed on its surface; and a man, whose curiosity exceeds his prudence, may stand on the top of it, bore a hole through the crust, and see the lava flowing underneath his feet!

Nothing can resist the progress of the lava-flood; trees, houses, everything yields to its massive assault, The trees take fire before its approach, and when it reaches them they emit a hissing noise almost amounting to a shriek, and then plunging into the molten flood are seen no more. Even the sea cannot withstand the lava-stream, but retires on its approach; so that promontories stretching to a considerable distance from the shore are formed in this manner, when the molten matter hardens into stone.

Cascades and Jets of Lava

The eruptions of lava are sometimes attended by peculiarities which impart to them much additional grandeur. Instances have occurred in which the fiery stream has plunged over a sheer precipice of immense height, so as to produce a glowing cascade exceeding in breadth and perpendicular descent the celebrated Falls of Niagara. In other cases, the lava, instead of at once flowing down the sides of the mountain, has been first thrown up into the air as a fiery fountain several hundred feet in height. This happens when the great crater at the summit of the cone is full of liquid lava but does not overflow. Then, on the formation of an opening in the side of the cone, a good way down, the lava issuing from it is projected upwards to nearly the same height that it occupies in the interior of the crater at the top of the cone. It is hardly possible for the fancy to picture to itself anything so magnificent as such a fountain of liquid fire must be. A simple jet of water of considerable volume, thrown into the air to the height of a hundred feet, is itself a beautiful spectacle. What then must be a huge jet of glowing white lava projected to the height of several hundred feet, and with what an awful thundering sound must it come tumbling to the ground, thence to rush as a roaring torrent down the mountain's side!

Variations in its Consistency - Pumice

Lava, when congealed, differs in its consistency according as it is near the top or near the bottom of the stream. When near the top it is porous, owing to its rapid cooling; when near the bottom it is dense, owing to its slow cooling and the great pressure to which it is subjected. When the lighter superficial lava is brought suddenly into contact with water, as when a lava-stream enters the sea, it becomes still lighter and more porous--forming the well-known substance called pumice, so much used for polishing. It may be regarded as the solidified froth of lava, and is so light that it floats on the surface of water.

Different Sorts of Lava

The lavas of different mountains, when cooled and hardened, differ much in their appearance and composition. Among those of Iceland is found the beautiful black volcanic glass named obsidian. It is a good deal used for ornamental purposes; for it possesses the peculiar property of presenting a different appearance according to the manner in which it is cut. When cut in one direction it is of a beautiful jetty black; when cut across that direction it is glistering gray. The lavas of Vesuvius are generally of a brown colour, and are also used in the arts. In them are found the beautiful olive-green crystals of the mineral called olivine, sometimes used by jewellers. But the most useful of all volcanic productions is native sulphur, in which Mount Etna has been very prolific. It is to this mountain chiefly, therefore, that we are indebted for our beautiful fire-works--our squibs, crackers, Roman candles, serpents, Catherine-wheels, and sky-rockets. Would it had produced nothing more harmful than these! But it has also supplied one of the ingredients of that villainous gunpowder, which has been the means of thrusting so many of our fellow-creatures prematurely out of the world. Etna, however, can hardly be held responsible for this sad misuse of the valuable substance which it affords; while even gunpowder itself has, on the whole, been of vast benefit to mankind. Could we only refrain from shooting each other with it, we might regard it as an almost unmixed good; for it has helped us greatly in forming our roads, railways, and tunnels, and in working our quarries and mines.

The three main forms of lava are aa, pillow lava, and pahoehoe.

Solidified lava is known as igneous rock.

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