It seems like the only personal protective equipment (PPE) that volcanologists use are aluminized suits that don't provide any protection from direct contact with lava, making an unexpected splash lethal. There are suits that firefighters use to go directly into fires for prolonged periods of time, and they are able to resist temperatures exceeding 1100 °C (~2000 °F) for up to 15 minutes at a time. Most lava is around this temperature threshold, with the coolest lava erupting at a mere 650 °C (~1200 °F).

Why don't volcanologists use these suits to study volcanoes? Instead of using those awkward long metal rods to pick out the right piece of lava to study, couldn't they use their gloved hands to pick it up (perhaps on the colder erupting lavas like the ones that does so at 650 °C)?

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Interesting question! Admittedly, I have actually wondered this as well. I would add that more protection (if possible) from pyroclastic flows would be beneficial as well. $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Dec 31 '14 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ Are you talking about something like this? $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Dec 31 '14 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ It is probably due to the 15 minute restriction you mention for firefighters at 1100 C. Getting into position and taking samples may take longer than that. Aluminum has a low heat capacity and is reflective so it is a good choice to minimize absorption and quickly radiate heat away making longer exposure possible at the expense of not allowing direct contact $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Jan 1 '15 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Some of these comments would make great answers $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Jan 2 '15 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ @football-fsj I have posted a link to this question to my Twitter network as well $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Jan 2 '15 at 19:15

I'm a volcanologist and I have worked on erupting volcanoes. First of all, volcanologists almost never actually wear those suits. Heat is almost never the hazard that matters in the situations in which we work. The hazards are usually the chance of being hit by ballistics, or getting gassed. The reason you see those suits so often is that they look really cool on TV.

I do know that Katia and Maurice Krafft wore them commonly, but their goal was to get as close to explosive eruptions as possible, as frequently as possible, for as long as possible. This strategy leads to death. It was a tragedy when the Kraffts (and 41 others) were killed at Unzen, but not entirely a surprising one, in retrospect. Modern volcanologists tend to be far more cautious and you might say that the heroic age of volcanology is over.

When you're working on an erupting volcano, some major things you can do to reduce risk are:

  1. Wear a helmet. This would have saved lives at Galeras.
  2. Reduce the amount of time you spend in the hazard zone. This means you need to work quickly, which often means carry less and don't wear silly protective gear like heat suits.
  3. Wear a gas mask, usually with SO2 scrubber cartridge. Ever try to jog up a hill in one of these? It becomes hard to breathe, and the mask quickly fills up with condensation from your breath. Communication through a radio or otherwise is hindered. Everything takes longer, so sometimes the masks are left off in the interest of #2.
  4. Increase your situational awareness. Maintain communications with someone who is watching data from instruments such as seismometers and tiltmeters. Also, make sure you have unobstructed vision so that you can potentially step out of the way of lava bombs which are falling towards you. Again, PPE such as a heat suit or even a gas mask can work against this.

As for the idea of "picking up" lava with your hands, remember that lava is extremely viscous, so it takes quite a lot of force to pull a sample out of a flow. The colder lavas to which you refer are even more viscous than hotter lavas. Anyway, I doubt there are any gloves that can deal with prolonged contact with a 650C fluid. (Remember that fluids and solids are far more conductive than a gas and will transfer far more heat.) I think trying to sample lava with hands would be far more "awkward" than using a pole, which is really quite a simple, easy way to do it.

Edit: I just thought of another reason volcanologists can't dress like firefighters. Expense. Volcanologists have an extremely hard time getting sufficient funding. I actually asked for an SCBA for my work in the fumarolic ice caves of Mt Erebus, where CO2 is high. We couldn't afford it on our grant. Instead, I just carefully monitor gas levels and there are caves which I cannot enter because we read dangerous levels of gas at the entrances.

Edit: I highly recommend that anyone interested in this subject read No Apparent Danger and Volcano Cowboys.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great answer, especially from a volcanologist - which volcanoes have you examined? $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Mar 6 '15 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ For scientific purposes, I've spent time at Erebus, Sakurajima, Villarrica, Yellowstone, and most of the major volcanoes in Ecuador. I've seen some lava in HI too and climbed Mt Rainier, but those were "off-duty"! $\endgroup$ Mar 6 '15 at 4:42
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    $\begingroup$ Far more conductive to heat. Air is a good insulator. A better way to say this might be that conduction is a more efficient heat transfer mechanism than convection. I dunno what sort of gloves the OP had in mind, though, so I'm not even sure if this is relevant. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 '15 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ Ah! Sakurajima! One of my favourite volcanoes to visit when I lived in Japan! I am very impressed! Am going to give 50 rep to this answer (once I can). $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Mar 6 '15 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ @foobarbecue I meant these gloves They claim to have an "operating temp" of 815 degrees celsius and a maximum temp of over 1,000 degrees celsius. Would it be possible to pick up the colder erupting lava in those? $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 2:45

I think the answer to "Why don't scientists use fire entry suits to study volcanoes?" is that this is a question of professional ethics rather than of technology. For some institution to support, condone, or fund such a proposal, it would first have to conduct some sort of a safety review. At a significant cost, this approach would encourage risky behavior, put personnel into greater danger, and for small gains that could be obtained by safer alternatives. I expect most university, research or governmental agencies would decide this would be unethical to support because it may encourage greater risk-taking and injury to their technicians.

Although firefighters may use such protective suits, their objective is to save the lives of others. Although manned space flight is also a highly risky project, the payoff is potentially much higher and there may be no practical alternatives. There are safer ways to obtain a sample of fresh lava - a long pole or a robot.

It's very sad that there have been some fatal accidents of persons observing volcanos. To my knowledge however, the sort of 'protective' wear you suggest would not have saved lives in these cases, the circumstances were devastatingly powerful, explosive, and catastrophic and not the sort of risk technicians experience in industry. Examples of 'acceptable-risk' in this would be something comparable to what a worker in a steel foundry or glass-blowing shop might experience. Do these workers use such suits? Volcanologists should at least take the same level of precaution as comparable industrial workers.

So my answer is that the question is not entirely technical, once lives are involved there are ethical questions as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Very pertinent points here, related to the pyroclastic flow protection question - volcanologists do what they can to avoid such danger, but volcanoes are unpredictable beasts. $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Jan 3 '15 at 18:41

Main danger to life near a volcano is not heat from the lava but volcanic gases. Volcanic gases are typically very acidic, poisonous gases and can displace breathable air near lava flows.

http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hazards/gas/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_gas

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    $\begingroup$ related earthscience.stackexchange.com/questions/3176/… $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Jan 3 '15 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ Given that fire entry suits almost always have built-in air supply (SCBA), this isn't really the answer that I am looking for. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 '15 at 7:24

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