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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Expert Opinion

Bruce Marsh

Bruce Marsh

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS

A crew drilling on the Big Island of Hawaii recently discovered magma, the molten rock material, in its natural habitat underground. Arts and Sciences Magazine checked in with Hopkins’ “Magma PI,” Bruce Marsh, professor of earth and planetary sciences, about the significance of the finding. Marsh and William Teplow, a consultant for Nevada-based Ormat Technologies, Inc., which was doing the drilling, announced the finding at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Q: How important is the recent discovery of magma in its natural habitat?

A: Volcanoes erupt molten rock as lava somewhere on Earth every day. The appearance of lava is a dramatic event. It signals that inner Earth is alive, unusually hot, and chemically and physically evolving. Continents and ocean basins, seemingly immutable features that we take for granted, owe their existence to the magmatic workings of Earth. Magma, lava's inner-Earth equivalent, represents the relentless ongoing distillation of primitive Earth material into highly refined rock. All geologists who work on magmatic rocks dream and design on the nature and behavior of magma in its natural habitat deep in Earth. Lava is not magma; it is magma dying a rapid death, on its way to a pancake-like solid. It is a lifeless dinosaur in a museum. And although magma has been searched for over and over, it had never been found until this accidental encounter during routine drilling by Ormat Technologies Inc. in Hawaii. This is an unprecedented discovery, which in every way is a magmatic Jurassic Park. If a paleontologist could see a dinosaur frolicking in the open countryside, it would be spellbinding. Every nuance of its behavior could be learned. That's what this is for me to see magma in its natural habitat. We have the opportunity to build a long-term magmatic observatory to watch it evolve. A truly singular event is at hand: first contact with the inner Earth, where magma lives and breathes.