Composition of Lava


The composition of almost all lava of the Earth’s crust is dominated by silicate minerals: mostly feldspars, feldspathoids, olivine, pyroxenes, amphiboles, micas and quartz. Rare nonsilicate lavas can form by local melting of nonsilicate mineral deposits or by separation of a magma into separate immiscible silicate and nonsilicate liquid phases.

Silicate lavas

Silicate lavas are molten mixtures dominated by oxygen and silicon, the Earth’s most abundant chemical elements, with smaller quantities of aluminium, calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, and potassium, and minor amounts of many other elements. Petrologists routinely express the composition of a silicate lava in terms of the weight or molar mass fraction of the oxides of the major elements (other than oxygen) present in the lava.

The physical behavior of silicate magmas is dominated by the silica component. Silicon ions in lava strongly bind to four oxygen ions in a tetrahedral arrangement. If an oxygen ion is bound to two silicon ions in the melt, it is described as a bridging oxygen, and lava with many clumps or chains of silicon ions connected by bridging oxygen ions is described as partially polymerized. Aluminum in combination with alkali metal oxides (sodium and potassium) also tends to polymerize the lava Other cations, such as ferrous iron, calcium, and magnesium, bond much more weakly to oxygen and reduce the tendency to polymerize. Partial polymerization makes the lava viscous, so lava high in silica is much more viscous than lava low in silica.

Because of the role of silica in determining viscosity, and because many other properties of a lava (such as its temperature) are observed to correlate with silica content, silicate lavas are divided into four chemical types based on silica content: felsicintermediatemafic, and ultramafic.

Felsic lava

Felsic or silicic lavas have a silica content greater than 63%. They include rhyolite and dacite lavas. With such a high silica content, these lavas are extremely viscous, ranging from 108 cP for hot rhyolite lava at 1,200 °C (2,190 °F) to 1011 cP for cool rhyolite lava at 800 °C (1,470 °F). For comparison, water has a viscosity of about 1 cP. Because of this very high viscosity, felsic lavas usually erupt explosively to produce pyroclastic (fragmental) deposits. However, rhyolite lavas occasionally erupt effusively to form lava spines, lava domes or “coulees” (which are thick, short lava flows). The lavas typically fragment as they extrude, producing block lava flows. These often contain obsidian.

Felsic magmas can erupt at temperatures as low as 800 °C (1,470 °F). Unusually hot (>950 °C; >1,740 °F) rhyolite lavas, however, may flow for distances of many tens of kilometres, such as in the Snake River Plain of the northwestern United States.

Intermediate lava

Intermediate or andesitic lavas contain 52% to 63% silica, and are lower in aluminium and usually somewhat richer in magnesium and iron than felsic lavas. Intermediate lavas form andesite domes and block lavas, and may occur on steep composite volcanoes, such as in the Andes. They are also commonly hotter, in the range of 850 to 1,100 °C (1,560 to 2,010 °F)). Because of their lower silica content and higher eruptive temperatures, they tend to be much less viscous, with a typical viscosity of 3.5 × 106 cP at 1,200 °C (2,190 °F). This is slightly greater than the viscosity of smooth peanut butter. Intermediate lavas show a greater tendency to form phenocrysts, Higher iron and magnesium tends to manifest as a darker groundmass, including amphibole or pyroxene phenocrysts.

Mafic lava

Mafic or basaltic lavas have a silica content of 52% to 45%. They are typified by their high ferromagnesian content, and generally erupt at temperatures of 1,100 to 1,200 °C (2,010 to 2,190 °F). Viscosities can be relatively low, around 104 to 105 cP, although this is still many orders of magnitude higher than water. This viscosity is similar to that of ketchup. Basalt lavas tend to produce low-profile shield volcanoes or flood basalts, because the fluidal lava flows for long distances from the vent. The thickness of a basalt lava, particularly on a low slope, may be much greater than the thickness of the moving lava flow at any one time, because basalt lavas may “inflate” by supply of lava beneath a solidified crust. Most basalt lavas are of ʻAʻā or pāhoehoe types, rather than block lavas. Underwater, they can form pillow lavas, which are rather similar to entrail-type pahoehoe lavas on land.

Ultramafic lava

Ultramafic lavas, such as komatiite and highly magnesian magmas that form boninite, take the composition and temperatures of eruptions to the extreme. All have a silica content under 45%. Komatiites contain over 18% magnesium oxide, and are thought to have erupted at temperatures of 1,600 °C (2,910 °F). At this temperature there is practically no polymerization of the mineral compounds, creating a highly mobile liquid. Viscosities of komatiite magmas are thought to have been as low as 100 to 1000 cP, similar to that of light motor oil. Most ultramafic lavas are no younger than the Proterozoic, with a few ultramafic magmas known from the Phanerozoic in Central America that are attributed to a hot mantle plume. No modern komatiite lavas are known, as the Earth’s mantle has cooled too much to produce highly magnesian magmas.

Akaline lavas

Some silicic lavas have an elevated content of alkali metal oxides (sodium and potassium), particularly in regions of continental rifting, areas overlying deeply subducted plates, or at intraplate hotspots. Their silica content can range from ultramafic (nephelinites, basanites and tephrites) to felsic (trachytes). They are more likely to be generated at greater depths in the mantle than subalkaline magmas. Olivine nephelinite lavas are both ultramafic and highly alkaline, and are thought to have come from much deeper in the mantle of the Earth than other lavas.

Nonsilicic lavas

Some lavas of unusual composition have erupted onto the surface of the Earth. These include:

  • Carbonatite and natrocarbonatite lavas are known from Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania, which is the sole example of an active carbonatite volcano. Carbonatites in the geologic record are typically 75% carbonate minerals, with lesser amounts of silica-undersaturated silicate minerals (such as micas and olivine), apatite, magnetite, and pyrochlore. This may not reflect the original composition of the lava, which may have included sodium carbonate that was subsequently removed by hydrothermal activity, though laboratory experiments show that a calcite-rich magma is possible. Carbonatite lavas show stable isotope ratios indicating they are derived from the highly alkaline silicic lavas with which they are always associated, probably by separation of an immiscible phase. Natrocarbonatite lavas of Ol Doinyo Lengai are composed mostly of sodium carbonate, with about half as much calcium carbonate and half again as much potassium carbonate, and minor amounts of halides, fluorides, and sulphates. The lavas are extremely fluid, with viscosities only slightly greater than water, and are very cool, with measured temperatures of 491 to 544 °C (916 to 1,011 °F).
  • Iron oxide lavas are thought to be the source of the iron ore at Kiruna, Sweden which formed during the Proterozoic. Iron oxide lavas of Pliocene age occur at the El Laco volcanic complex on the Chile-Argentina border. Iron oxide lavas are thought to be the result of immiscible separation of iron oxide magma from a parental magma of calc-alkaline or alkaline composition.
  • Sulfur lava flows up to 250 metres (820 feet) long and 10 metres (33 feet) wide occur at Lastarria volcano, Chile. They were formed by the melting of sulfur deposits at temperatures as low as 113 °C (235 °F).

The term “lava” can also be used to refer to molten “ice mixtures” in eruptions on the icy satellites of the Solar System’s gas giants. (See cryovolcanism).

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