'Giant's Causeway' Mysterious Irish Rock Structure Was Formed by Ancient Volcanoes

The rock formation seen at the Giant's Causeway is the result of magma rock cooling and cracking. A woman takes a photo on the Giant's Causeway. Ben Birchall/Glasgow 2014 Ltd via Getty Images

On the coast of Northern Ireland sits an expanse of polygonal rock columns known as the Giant's Causeway. The natural formation has been the center of myths as well as geologic research for years, but now a new study sets the record straight by finally explaining how the Giant's Causeway came to be.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, was published in Nature Communications Thursday. Scientists already knew that the Giant's Causeway rock columns formed from cracking during the quick cooling of magma rock about 50 to 60 million years ago, Science Alert reported. However, the specifics of exactly what happened to create such a natural marvel remained unclear.

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The researchers created an experiment that allowed them to see exactly what happened when lava cooled. Using rock columns from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the team heated the rock samples and then cooled them, a press release on the study reported. This allowed them to see at what point the cooling lava created the same rock features seen at the Giant's Causeway. The answer was between 1,544 and 1,634 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We have been wanting to know whether the temperature of the lava that causes the fractures was hot, warm or cold," said Yan Lavallee, chair of volcanology and magmatic processes at the University of Liverpool, and study co-author, Science Alert reported. "Now, with this study, we have found that the answer is hot, but after it solidified."

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The finding has more implications than just answering an ancient mystery. It also gives insight into how volcanoes work and how we may be able to use this natural energy source for our own benefit.

The polygonal shape of rocks found at the Giant's Causeway. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Geothermal energy uses heat that is trapped beneath the Earth to create electricity. Much of this energy comes from the heat of supercritical water, which is water that is so hot that it no longer behaves like traditional water.

Harnessing the power of magma is complicated, however, and humans still haven't mastered the process. According to Lavallée, the finding could help direct human drilling strategy and lead to innovations in the development of using magma energy sources.