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(28,791 posts)
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 11:33 AM Dec 2011

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Lava

By Erik Klemetti

This post is based on a question I was posed in my “Introduction to Rocks and Minerals” class. Now, mind you, it isn’t a serious question, but when I thought about how to answer it, I realized how completely wrong everybody has been about it. The revelation was so clear I half expected the planet to be destroyed to make way for a bypass. So, before that happens, I thought a blog post might be a great way to explain why.

I’ll start with the answer: Everyone is wrong about how people die when they fall into lava.

So, what was the question? This (slightly paraphrased): “In that scene from Return of the King when Gollum falls into the pit of lava, would he have really just sunk into the lava like that?”

At first, it seemed like an easy question. Well, not so much easy as obvious: yes. However, the more I thought about it, the more I though that pretty much every scene I’ve ever noticed where somebody falls into lava and dies has got to be wrong....

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The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Lava (Original Post) Viva_La_Revolution Dec 2011 OP
Without looking, I'd guess that density (specific gravity) has a lot to do with it jberryhill Dec 2011 #1
you should read the link Viva_La_Revolution Dec 2011 #2
I didn't see the movie, but suspect "burst into flames" is high in probability. n/t Scuba Dec 2011 #3
I would hope they go into shock from the agony Motown_Johnny Dec 2011 #4
There's real data - including pictures saras Dec 2011 #5
So to the above horrors... Orsino Dec 2011 #6
Just turn over and inhale the lava - it should make for a quicker end Tyrs WolfDaemon Dec 2011 #18
That annoyed the hell out of me, too Warpy Dec 2011 #7
Really? GaYellowDawg Dec 2011 #8
But it wasn't magic lava! greyl Dec 2011 #9
Sure it was! n2doc Dec 2011 #12
Yes, suspension of disbelief was essential Warpy Dec 2011 #14
Use the Force svpadgham Dec 2011 #16
Granted, but would the Terminator have *really* sunk in molten metal? Fumesucker Dec 2011 #10
Personally, I would do a cannon ball. nt Javaman Dec 2011 #11
My feeling is the person would skitter across the lava like a drop of water or a sausage n2doc Dec 2011 #13
Herculaneum CJvR Dec 2011 #15
This thread is awesome. kestrel91316 Dec 2011 #17


(62,444 posts)
1. Without looking, I'd guess that density (specific gravity) has a lot to do with it
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 11:44 AM
Dec 2011

No, you won't sink into molten rock.


(28,791 posts)
2. you should read the link
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 11:52 AM
Dec 2011

lots of the posters are geologists or earth scientists.. they're not in complete agreement of course, and the discussion is fascinating.



(22,308 posts)
4. I would hope they go into shock from the agony
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 12:34 PM
Dec 2011

and possibly die from it, their corpse floating away on the lava.



(6,670 posts)
5. There's real data - including pictures
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 12:39 PM
Dec 2011

...and so little need for random speculation.

OF COURSE you don't sink. The specific gravity of lava is WAY higher than water - you'll lay on top of it, basically. And some lava is really viscous, in which case even things like rocks that sink, sink very slowly.

You won't burst into flames, at least not at first. Too much water. Possibly after the steam goes away the fats will catch on fire.

It will NOT be painless, or fast. Smoke inhalation is what kills in most fires. On lava you won't die until you lose too much bodily fluids. So you will most likely lay there rolling around and screaming until all your skin comes off and your water boils away. Much fun.


(37,428 posts)
6. So to the above horrors...
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 12:55 PM
Dec 2011

...we can also add the kersplat as we hit the essentially unyielding lava. With luck, that would be a quick death if you're hitting from Gollum height.


(111,130 posts)
7. That annoyed the hell out of me, too
Mon Dec 12, 2011, 05:23 PM
Dec 2011

You'd have seen a blast of steam and then he'd have burst into flame but he wouldn't have sunk. What was left of him after he was incinerated would have coasted along on the surface of the lava.

But that wouldn't have made for drama. Seeing nothing but steam changing to smoke would have been boring, I guess.


(4,446 posts)
8. Really?
Tue Dec 13, 2011, 06:13 AM
Dec 2011

You watched a movie about magic rings and eternal elves and wizards and walking trees and you were annoyed that a lava death was unrealistic?

Maybe it was magic lava. Or maybe the magic ring magically altered Gollum's density to allow him to sink into the lava. I mean, hell, the ring could already control minds and bend light, why not alter a little density, too?

I'm just giving you a hard time.


(111,130 posts)
14. Yes, suspension of disbelief was essential
Tue Dec 13, 2011, 04:59 PM
Dec 2011

and I'd read those books as a kid wondering how they'd stage all that stuff if they ever tried to make a movie of it. I'm delighted that computer animation progressed as much as it has before they even tried. The Mines of Moria would have been incredibly disappointing had they been constructed on a sound stage.

I was equally disappointed by the sword fight over boiling lava in Star Wars III. While you might be able to survive that environment of heat and gases that turn into acid in your lungs for a short period, there is no way you could fight like a Ninja warrior in it.

Face it, they just can't do boiling lava right and need to stop using it as a plot device.


(670 posts)
16. Use the Force
Wed Dec 14, 2011, 12:10 PM
Dec 2011

That usually helps explain any event in a Star Wars movie. Your post also unintentionally attributes some inaccuracies to ninja fighting styles.


(47,953 posts)
13. My feeling is the person would skitter across the lava like a drop of water or a sausage
Tue Dec 13, 2011, 11:59 AM
Dec 2011

on a very hot griddle. Not a good death, except maybe in the Klingon sense.



(1,427 posts)
15. Herculaneum
Tue Dec 13, 2011, 09:09 PM
Dec 2011

IIRC the people of Herculaneum was killed by a pyroclastic flow which boiled their brains.

Magma is both hotter and denser, hotter than a crematorium.

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