Everything About the Volcanic Processes

Everything About the Volcanic Processes

Volcanic eruptions show a wide diversity, from very explosive activity to mild, effusive volcanoes. Several (physical) factors control the type of dynamism occuring :
-External water (encountered by the lava rising to the surface) ;
- Dissolved gases in the magma ;
-The intrinsic visocisty of the lava, broadly a function of its SiO2 content.

This allows to propose the following typology of volcanic eruptions:

- Does the magma meets water as it rise?
- Yes: Phreatic, phreatomagmatic, etc. eruptions dominated by water/magma interactions.
- No: Does the magma contains siginifcant amounts of dissolved gases, that cannot escape (too much gas and/or too high viscosity)?
- Yes: Stronlgy explosive, Plinian and related types
- No: Has the lava a high viscosity?
- Yes: Lavaa domes and avalanches. Explosive pelean type.
- No: Lava flows and scoria cones. Mostly effusive strombolian and hawaian types.

Note that a same volcano can show different types of dynamics at different moments of its history!

Apart from the first group (water-magma interactions), there is a trend from plinian to hawaian, corresponding to less and less explosive and more and more effusive activity ; globaly to more and more mafic magmas ; therefore to hotter and hotter and less and less viscous lavas. This also, more or less, corresponds to the opposition between calc-alkaline, typically subduction related volcanoes (« grey volcanoes ») and basaltic, commonly intra-plate volcanoes (« red volcanoes »).

Some terminology:

-       Pyroclastic deposits are all sort of eruptive “breccias”, generally unconsolidated.
- IUGS proposes several classifications, as a function of the size of the fragments or of their nature (glass/crystals/rock fragments).
- Size of the fragments: ash = fragments < 2 mm ; lapili, 2-64 mm ; block or bomb, > 64 mm.
- Several types, based on the “texture” (ash flow, block and ash flow) or the process (fall, flow, surge/blast).
- They are opposed to lava flows or domes.
- Erosionnal products (breccias and conglomerates) are also common. Lahars are a special type of mudflow formed from unconsolidated pyroclastites.

In general, the classifications and terminologies in volcanology are … loose and poorly defined at the best.

I. Water-magma interactions and related volcanic types

Water cools the rising magma… but also boils in contact with the hot rocks, forming vapour with a far larger volume. This can be the cause of catastrophically explosive events. The key factor here is the relative abundance of water and magma, allowing for more or less important amounts of water and therefore more or less violent rapid cooling of the magma. By decreasing amounts of water (or of water :magma proportions, rather) :

A. Sub-aquatic activity

Hot lava flowing into the water, quickly chilled. Results in pillow-lavas if massive; if brecciated, hyaloclastites = submarine breccias, generally quickly altered to secondary clays (palagonite).

B. Surtseyan etc. types

Explosive type, results in brecciation of the magma, explosive projections (surges). Uncommon, not very distinctive in the field.

C. Phreato-magmatic s.s.

Strongly explosive type, resulting from vaporisation of water (water table typically). The eruption punches out a ± rounded crater (“maar”), and generates a succession of blasts and vertical projections.

The crater is typically surrounded by a “tuff ring”, with alternating vertical falls and horizontal blasts (with dunes, etc). The deposits include both magma and broken bits of basement.

D. Deep diatremes

A special case of phreato-magmatic activity, with deep interactions (base of the crust ?) with water, causing very large diatremes. This is the typical mode of outcrop of S.A. kimberlitic pipes, that generate breccias of kimberlitic lava+basement rock. A diamontiferous rock.

Types of deposits
-          Pillow-lavas
-          Hyaloclastic breccias and palagonite
-          Tuff rings and maars; and their associated “diatreme” (the inside of the crater).

Erosion sometimes isolates the diatreme, and removes the surrounding rocks.

Classical examples
-          Submarine volcanoes (mid-ocean ridge, seamounts).
-          Kimberlite pipes

II.  Effects of gas exsolution

This type of eruptions occurs mostly with differenciated, felsic lavas (typically  calc-alkaline rhyolites). The calc-alkaline lavas are already rich in water, as they originate from a subduction zone ; the differenciation allows to concentrate the water in the differenciated magmas, and also generates high-viscosity lavas, rendering gas escape unlikely or difficult.

A.   Nucleation and growth of bubbles

Gas solubility in magma is favoured by pressure. Therefore, the rise of magma will limit the amount of volatiles dissolved and eventually lead to the nucleation of bubbles.
In turn, the volume of bubbles is an (inverse) function of pressure (PV=nRT) ; continuing rise of the magma will cause the bubbles to grow, until they start coalescing (« magma fragmentation »).

B.   Plinian and related eruptions

Magma fragmentation results in the formation of a froth of bubbles+magma films, eventually becoming collectively lighter than the surrounding rocks (and possibly lighter than air, as they are very hot) ; causing major explosions, that are able to blow away the top (or the side) of the volcano and generate a plume of ashes (with particles of magmas freezing immediately due to cooling at air and because of decompression). The plume can rise to several kilometers in height ; and will eventually fall down :
-          either as ash falls, potentially affecting a huge surface ;
-          or as ash flows (plume collapse), relatively light, hot flows, mostly unaffected by the old topography, able to reach large distances but with (comparatively) moderate destructive powers (compare block-and-ash flows below).

C.  Calderas and collapse structures

Calderas are large craters (typically 1-10 km wide) associated to an ignimbritic eruption. They correspond to collapse of the top of the magma chamber, suddently emptied by the large volume of lavas erupted.

Other collapse structures (flank collapse) are sometimes observed, in association with breccias. The best-known example here is Mount St-Helens (1980 eruption), where the progressive inflation of a « crypto-dome » lead to flank destabilization and collapse, in turn catastrophically lowering the pressure in the lava dome and provoking bubble nucleation and magma fragmentation.

Note the important role of destructive processes (avalanches, etc.) in the formation of big volcanoes –contrarily to the common belief, they are not just stacks of cinders and lavas flows.

Ring dykes, corresponding to magma conduits, are generally regarded as formed by caldera collapse and « cauldron subsidence ».

Types of deposits
Mostly ash flow and ash fall deposits, called ignimbrites, made of pumices with possibly elements of the basement, etc., carried with the ashes. Collapse structures associated generate breccias ; breccias can also be found at the base of the ash flows (erosion by the high-energy cloud).
Lot of secondary processes occur in ignimbrites, including welding (shortly after the deposit), hydrothermal ciculations and devitrification processes (collectively turning the unconsolidated, glassy ash deposit into a massive, occasioanlly banded, solid mass of finely crystalline rock). Welded ignimbrites (such as the one associated with the Cape Granite Suite, on the West Coast) are probably among the most tricky magmatic rock to recognize in the field…

 Classical examples

Fortunately, not too many! Plinian dynamism gets its name from the roman writer Plinius, who described the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy (Napoli) in 79 A.D., completely destroying the roman city of Pompei. The best-known example (which was studied throughout) is Mount Saint-Helens, in the N.W. USA (18 May 1980), or Montserrat (Antilles) in 1997. Other (historical) eruptions include Santorini (Eastern Mediterranean), or Krakatau (Indonesia, 1883). In the Western US, some very large calderas and associated ignimbrites indicate that some really, really major volcanic eruptions occured in the Quaternary (Yellowstone, Long Valley).

III.  Viscous lavas, domes and dome collapse

A.   Controls on lava viscosity

Lava viscosity is a function of (1) temperature, (2) degree of “polymerization” in the melt. Polymerization is the ability of silica tetrahedron to link together in the melt, it is clearly a function of the Si content in the rock (the more Si, the more polymerized the melt is). Water helps to break tetrahedron chains (and therefore lowers the viscosity).

As a consequence, hot mafic lavas tend to be less viscous (by orders of magnitude) than cooler, more felsic lavas. They will obviously be able to flow more than felsic lavas, that will more or less accumulate at the crater.

B.   Dome and dome destruction

Lava accumulation forms domes, with a chilled cortex and a still magmatic core.

Occasionally, the cortex collapses and the dome is accompanied by a brecciated “rim”.

Dome collapse also puts hot magma at air, resulting in local explosions (by pressure decrease); they generate lateral blasts and dense, “block-and-ash” flows made mostly of dome material, both ashes (from the inner magma) and blocks (from the cortex). They are dense flows, that follow the topography. They have a huge destructive power (very dense and quite hot). The classical example: Saint-Pierre, Martinique (1902).

 Types of deposits

Block-and-ash flows generate complex breccias, made of a mixture of volcanic ashes, blocks of (normally andesitic to felsic) lavas, and commonly fragments of the basement, or even elements of vegetation (useful for dating using 14C!). They are strongly erosive and their base can be rich in all sorts of allogen blocks; they can show huge intra-formation diversity. In addition, ash clouds are commonly associated with the block-and-ash flows; while smaller than the plinian ash flows, they effectively show the same features. Secondary processes (welding etc.) can affect block-and-ash flows, although probably less commonly than true ignimbrites (which tend to be far larger).

Lava domes are easier to spot, because of their characteristic morphology; petrologically, they are made of massive, typically andesites to dacites or rhyolites (or phonolites, in alkaline series). The cortex of a dome, also brecciated, can be a complicated rock.
Domes sometimes are not expressed in the surface, and emplaced just below the ground (in particular, phonolitic domes), and outcrop only due to erosion; they commonly have prismation (see below), chilled margins, etc.: transitionnal features between intrusive and volcanic relations.

 Classical examples

Pelean style gets its name from the Montagne-Pelée in Martinique (french Antilles), whose 1902 eruption razed the city of Saint-Pierre, killing 10,000. But domes (and associated block-and-ash flows) are a common feature of most big volcanoes in subduction zones; innumerable domes exist, more or less long-lived, active or extinct, in the Andes, Indonesia, Japan, etc.

IV. Fluid lavas, lava flows and cinder cones

A.   Lava flows

Fluid lava can have very low viscosity (10-102 Pa.s, compare to water: 10-3 Pa.s, kitchen oil 10-1 – 10-2 Pa.s). They can therefore make long-running flows.

Lava flows chill as they progress, resulting in “cortex” breccias, etc. It eventually develops a prismation when chilling (loss of volume)

B.   Cinder cones

The lava reaching near the surface “boils” (not exactly, is actually exsolves bubbles) and projects small bits of lava around the crater.  This forms a cinder (or scoria) cone, with accumulated scorias.
Types of dposits

Lava flows form massive, 1 to 100 m masses of (basaltic) lavas. They follow the preexisting topography and fill the valleys and holes. Lava flows tend to develop a prismation as they cool; faster cooling at the surface results in asymetric prism systems. A progression breccia is sometimes seen at the bottom and the front of the flows, corresponding to the chilled cortex of the flow broken and re-incorporated into the flow. The underlying basement can be contact-metamorphized (clays into brick!).
Large lava flows tend to cool from the outisde, making a tunnel into which the subsequent lavas can flow even further. Such tunnels are occasionally preserved.
Lava flows encountering a wet zone can produce local « phreatic » activity, resulting in the development of small scoria cones far downstrean (hornito).
Depending on the speed and the viscosity of the flow, its surface can be either rugged (aa) or smooth (pahoehoe).

Cinder cones are accumulation of scorias of different size. A rough « granular sorting » is sometimes seen, from a coarse core to a finer periphery ; all sort of sediementary figures related to movement in the unconsolidated scoria stack are common (« slumps », « growth faults », etc).
The cores of the cones were generally hotter, and are commonly either more oxydized, or welded. Welded cinders are common, forming small, flat mounds (spatter cones).
Cones are normally associated with lava flows, that either percolate through the base, or break through the scoria ring (again contrarily to a common conception, they do not flow from the top of the cone!).
Cones tend to form clusters and groups, typically aligned on faults that served as magma ascent conduits.

 Classical examples

Lava flows are a feature of nearly every single volcano; in general, even the most explosive volcanoes eventually end up spouting some fluid lava…
Strombolian style gets its name for Stromboli, in Italy. But strombolian cones are actually a feature of pretty much any basaltic volcano in the world –even hawaian volcanoes occasionally form a strombolian cone, when the magma is a little rich in bubbles. Strombolian cones are typically short-lived and erode rather fast, so there are few if any examples of « extinct » strombolian cones.

V.   Complex edifices

Real, large volcanoes are complex things, that generally associate multiple events ; each event has its own eruptive style, but a range of style and eruptive processes can occur, either in succession in course of time, or more or less simultaneously on a large surface. This results in the construction of large, complex edifices, active (or dormant) during 100,000 yrs – 1 Ma.

A.   Shield volcanoes

They are generally basaltic volcanoes; therefore, they are mostly formed by an accumulation of lava flows (and cones on the vents), occasionally with some phreato-magmatic structures when the lava encountered some water.

Occasional caldera-forming events are recorded, suggesting that even the quietest shield volcano can sometimes go « boom »…

Tectonic control seems to play a major role in the formation of such volcanoes, with vents typically linked to fractures in the lava pile.

Erosion and large scale collapse also are common features of these things, resulting in deep valleys (especially in tropical humid climates!), in turn filled by subsequent lava flows.

Breccias, from local or major landslides (potentially involving a whole flank of the volcano, although this remains speculative) are, surprisingly, perhaps the most common formation in a shield volcano… they are not so simple as the classical view has them, and destruction processes play a role as important as lava accumulation!

Geological activity tends to be fairly continuous in shield volcanoes, which lack long rest periods.

B.   Strato volcanoes

Stratovolcanoes are normally andesitic to felsic volcanoes, and therefore have a far more explosive style. They tend to be formed of alternate discontinuous “layers” of ashes and lava flows, with occasional domes and/or calderas.

The activity is stratovolcanoes is fairly discontinuous; they can be dormant for long periods (up to 1 Ma) between two eruptions, with little to show except maybe some hydrothermalism. Activity periods tend to start in fairly catastrophic ways, as new magma makes its way to the surface (and breaks through existing rocks), followed by relatively quiter periods of lava flows and/or dome growth (accompanied by the occasional  block and ash flow).

Erosion also plays a major role here; but, since a large part of the volcano is anyway made of breccias and pyroclastic deposits, collapse facies are maybe even more difficult to spot.

C.   The role of gravity collapse in large volcanoes

Volcanoes tend to have steep slopes (well above the stability angle), and are heterogeneous edifices with lot of potential weakness planes. In addition, they are geologically active (magma-induced deformation, seismic tremor…). Landslides are therefore a common feature.

In size, they can range from local cliff collapse etc., to very massive, major collapse affecting the whole flank of a volcano; this is commonly related to major eruptions phases (cf. Saint-Helens, where the denudation of the sub-surface dome induced the eruption).

Besides the “dry” landslide, a common feature in stratovolcano (pyroclastic deposits) is represented by mud flows made of elements of pyroclastites. They are completely unsorted, made of random material. They are common where water is available: tropical climate or sub-glacial volcanoes!

Collectively, large volcanoes are shaped as much by erosion than by construction…

 Classical examples

Broadly speaking, the stratovolcanoes are the calc-alkaline edifices from the subduction zones, whereas the shield volcanoes are intraplate, hot-spot related.

Classical hawaian basaltic shield volcanoes are intra-oceanic volcanoes, such as Hawai ; but also most of the Pacific Island chain (Polynesia) ; Indian ocean Islands (Réunion, Mauritius) ; Atlantic islands (Saint Helena, Azores); etc. They are the typical, spectacular lava-flow type of volcanoes, with lava fountains, lava lakes, etc.

Typical strato-volcanoes are the large constructions such as Mount Saint Helens (USA), Montagne-Pelée or Montserrat (Antilles), Mount Unzen or Fuji (Japan), Pinatubo (Indonesia), volcanoes from South or Central America, etc., all related to subductions.
Some intracontinental rift-related volcanoes (Cameroon, Kilimandjaro) also are stratovolcanoes.

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