When It Comes to Volcanoes, What Is Laze?

Laze is the result of lava and the ocean coming in contact, and its dangers are real. Allen.G/Shutterstock

Volcanoes present plenty of dangers from lava flows and landslides to volcanic gases and more. The thing about these threats is that they sound like threats — in fact, watching lava flow is as awe-inspiring activity.

But there's one danger from volcanoes that doesn't sound like a risk, however. In fact, it sound like the exact opposite. It's laze.

Laze is typically a verb that means to do something lazily or in a relaxed manner. For instance, you can laze during a Saturday morning in bed, not doing much of anything. Cats are very good at lazing.

But when it comes to volcanoes, laze is a dangerous thing.

When lava meets ocean

As hot lava makes contact with the ocean, it evaporates the water, and this forms steam plumes. It also makes the water incredibly hot, capable of delivering third-degree burns, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

A portmanteau of lava and haze, these steam plumes are laze. As the ocean boils from the intense heat, molecules break apart, and two in particular are what make laze so dangerous. Super-heating the water causes the water molecules to eventually break apart and become a gas, or steam, so the water molecules are broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The chloride in the sea salt ends up bonding with these loosed atoms, and the result is plumes of hydrochloric acid.

As if that weren't bad enough, the laze contains a couple of other unpleasant elements in addition to the hydrochloric acid. There are also "tiny volcanic glass particles" making laze a cloud of acid and jagged bits of matter. Even if you're not near the coast, winds can carry laze miles and miles inland.

A steam plume rises as lava enters the Pacific Ocean near Pahoa, Hawaii. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Laze can be deadly. The USGS reports that it killed two people in 2000 as seawater swept across fresh lava flow. If it doesn't kill you, it can still cause some harm, including "lung damage, and eye and skin irritation," according to the County of Hawaii Civil Defense. Only a wisp of laze can cause result in these irritations.

Regrettably, the danger from laze doesn't end there.

Laze can produce acid rain. With a pH of between 1.5 and 3.5 — pure water has a neutral pH of 7 — acid rain has the corrosive properties of battery acid. This is fitting since hydrochloric acid is used to make battery acid.

Protecting yourself from laze amounts to two things. First, if you're near the coast where lava is streaming into the ocean, you should immediately vacate the area. Second, in the event that laze plumes are being blown inland, it's best to stay indoors with the windows closed to reduce the risk of exposure.