Benchmarking computational fluid dynamics models of lava flow simulation for hazard assessment, forecasting, and risk management

Hannah R. Dietterich*, Einat Lev, Jiangzhi Chen, Jacob A. Richardson, Katharine V. Cashman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)
344 Downloads (Pure)


Numerical simulations of lava flow emplacement are valuable for assessing lava flow hazards, forecasting active flows, designing flow mitigation measures, interpreting past eruptions, and understanding the controls on lava flow behavior. Existing lava flow models vary in simplifying assumptions, physics, dimensionality, and the degree to which they have been validated against analytical solutions, experiments, and natural observations. In order to assess existing models and guide the development of new codes, we conduct a benchmarking study of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models for lava flow emplacement, including VolcFlow, OpenFOAM, FLOW-3D, COMSOL, and MOLASSES. We model viscous, cooling, and solidifying flows over horizontal planes, sloping surfaces, and into topographic obstacles. We compare model results to physical observations made during well-controlled analogue and molten basalt experiments, and to analytical theory when available. Overall, the models accurately simulate viscous flow with some variability in flow thickness where flows intersect obstacles. OpenFOAM, COMSOL, and FLOW-3D can each reproduce experimental measurements of cooling viscous flows, and OpenFOAM and FLOW-3D simulations with temperature-dependent rheology match results from molten basalt experiments. We assess the goodness-of-fit of the simulation results and the computational cost. Our results guide the selection of numerical simulation codes for different applications, including inferring emplacement conditions of past lava flows, modeling the temporal evolution of ongoing flows during eruption, and probabilistic assessment of lava flow hazard prior to eruption. Finally, we outline potential experiments and desired key observational data from future flows that would extend existing benchmarking data sets.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Applied Volcanology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2017


  • Analogue experiments
  • Benchmarking
  • Lava flows
  • Model validation
  • Numerical modeling


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