There are several different kinds of lava, depending on the chemical composition and temperature of the molten rock that erupts from a volcano. The smooth variety is called pahoehoe, and the rougher variety is known as a’a (pronounced ah-ah). A’a is a Hawaiian word meaning “stony with rough lava”.
If you’ve ever been to the Big Island of Hawaii and gone for a hike, you’ve seen a’a lava. It’s incredibly rough and jagged black rock that takes forever to walk across; and tears your shoes apart as you go.
During an eruption, a’a lava comes out of the volcano as a very thick (viscous) lava that travels very slowly. The inside of an a’a lava flow is thick and dense. Surrounding this thick dense core is a sharp spiny surface of cooling rock. These fragments of rock are carried on the top of the a’a lava flow and make a crunching grinding sound as the lava flows downhill.
Once the lava flow stops, it can take weeks or even years for the lava to harden completely. The interior dense core hardens in place with the jagged fragments surrounding it. This is why old a’a flows are so sharp and jagged.
A’a flows move slowly – you could easily outrun one – but they move fast enough to tear down buildings, cover roads, and destroy vegetation.
The smoother pahoehoe lava can turn into a’a lava as it gets further downhill. This happens because of the delicate balance of gas content in the lava, the changes in lava viscosity, and the rate of deformation as the lava flows and cools. Once this balance changes, the pahoehoe can change into a’a. Of course, a’a lava never changes back into pahoehoe.
We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.