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The truth behind Disney Pixar's 'LAVA'

By Sapphire Wanmer

Photo credit: Pixabay

In 2015 Disney Pixar released a short film called LAVA that goes along-side the feature length film ‘Inside-out.’ The short film includes a catchy tune about a volcano named Uku who is waiting for someone to love (or, to lava), eventually Uku the volcano becomes old and slowly sinks beneath the waves, until all of a sudden a new volcano named Lele erupts out of the sea to form a new volcanic island and Uku the volcano isn’t lonely anymore. Is there any truth to this volcano love story dreamed up by Disney Pixar? Volcanoes are not living in a true sense and don’t have feelings or emotions so how does this tale relate to the real world of volcanology?

Photo credit: S.Wanmer

As an example we will focus on the history of the volcanic islands of Hawaii, which is where the creators of ‘LAVA’ got their inspiration. The Hawiian archipelago is a set of volcanic islands that rise out of the Central Pacific Ocean. These islands are part of a long and ancient sequence of volcanoes known as the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount chain which spans a distance of up to 6000 km’s [1]. This chain of volcanoes has grown as the Pacific tectonic plate moves over an area of relatively stable magma production, known as a hotspot.

The pacific plate moves north-westwards at an average rate of 7-11 cm per year [2], whereas the ‘hotspot’ which produces magma in the region of the Hawaiian archipelago stays put. This means that over time a volcano will build up and grow out of the ocean to form a volcanic island but the movement of the tectonic plate upon which it sits will gradually drag that volcano away from the source of magma. As this happens the volcanic island will stop growing as its magma plumbing system is shut off. Left to the elements the volcanic island will be worn down by the agents of weathering, such as rain, wind, ice and attack from the surrounding ocean. The island will get smaller and gradually disappear beneath the ocean back from where it came. But, magma is still being produced at the hotspot which means that as one volcano is dying another young volcano will be growing. Eventually as one volcano disappears another will rise to take its place.

Photo credit: S.Wanmer

A seamount is a volcano that is submerged beneath the ocean which may build up until it reaches above the surface of the ocean and forms an island. At the moment the youngest volcano along the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount chain is a seamount named Loihi. One day this volcano will form a new island in the Hawaiian archipelago.This unseen seamount submerged beneath the waves could represent the volcano Lele in the ‘LAVA’ film, where-as the main character Uku may represent one of the current Hawaiian Islands.

The LAVA film only lasts about 7 minutes where-as an actual sequence of rise and fall of a volcano at a hotspot such as Hawaii would take millions of years. The sequence of growth and destruction will continue as long as there is a constant supply of magma from a relatively stationary hotspot and as long as the tectonic plate continues to move.

The Disney Pixar short film ‘LAVA’ really tells the life story of any volcano, and not just those that erupt out of the sea. The cycle of growth and collapse is the same story for all volcanoes the world over. The volcano begins to form when magma finds its way to the surface of the earth and erupts, it grows and grows through cycles of eruption and dormancy until one day the magma is no longer supplied, then the volcano sits there on the surface of the earth being worn away until eventually only a very small amount of it, or maybe nothing at all, remains. All of the material that is removed from the original volcano eventually ends up in the sea as sediments, these can then be consumed at a subduction zone where one tectonic plate rides over another. Some of the sediments that go down the subduction zone may then go on to melt and form a new magma which gets erupted at a new volcano. This sums up a sequence of events known as the rock cycle.

As you can see, there really is some truth in the latest Disney Pixar short film ‘LAVA’ which tells the life story of volcanoes.



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