We have investigated the effect of a solidifying crust on the dynamics and surface morphology of radial viscous-gravity currents. Liquid polyethylene glycol was admitted into the base of a tank filled with cold sucrose solution maintained at a temperature below the wax freezing point. As the radial current advanced away from the inlet, its surface solidified and deformed through a combination of folding and fracturing. For the warmest experiments, during which solidification did not occur, the radius of the current increased in proportion to the square root of time, as demonstrated both experimentally and theoretically for isothermal viscous fluids by Huppert (1982). When cooling was sufficiently rapid, solid crust formed and caused the spreading rate to decrease. A cooling model combining conduction in the wax with convection in the sucrose solution predicts the distance from the source at which the solid crust first appeared
Progressively colder experiments revealed a sequence of surface morphologies which resembled features observed on cooling lava flows and lava lakes. Flows in which crust formed very slowly developed marginal levees which contained and channelled the main portion of the current. Colder flows with more rapid crust growth formed regularly spaced surface folds, multi-armed rift structures complete with shear offsets, and bulbous lobate forms similar to pillow lavas seen under the ocean. The same transitions between modes of surface deformation were also generated by keeping the ambient water temperature constant and decreasing the extrusion rate. This demonstration that surfaces can exhibit a well-defined sequence of morphologies which depend on the underlying flow conditions offers the prospect of more successful interpretation of natural lava flows.