What is Pumice?
Pumice is a light coloured, extremely porous igneous rock that forms during explosive volcanic eruptions. It is used as aggregate in lightweight concrete, as landscaping aggregate, and as an abrasive in a variety of industrial and consumer products. Many specimens have a high enough porosity that they can float on water until they slowly become waterlogged.
Pumice, called pumicite in its powdered or dust form, is a volcanic rock that consists of highly vesicular rough textured volcanic glass, which may or may not contain crystals. It is typically light coloured. Scoria is another vesicular volcanic rock that differs from pumice in having larger vesicles, thicker vesicle walls and being dark coloured and denser.
Pumice is created when super-heated, highly pressurised rock is violently ejected from a volcano. The unusual foamy configuration of pumice happens because of simultaneous rapid cooling and rapid depressurisation. The depressurisation creates bubbles by lowering the solubility of gases (including water and CO2) that are dissolved in the lava, causing the gases to rapidly ex-solve (like the bubbles of CO2 that appear when a carbonated drink is opened). The simultaneous cooling and depressurisation freezes the bubbles in a matrix. Eruptions under water are rapidly cooled and the large volume of pumice created can be a shipping hazard for cargo ships.
Properties of Pumice
Pumice is composed of highly microvesicular glass pyroclastic with very thin, translucent bubble walls of extrusive igneous rock. It is commonly, but not exclusively of silicic or felsic to intermediate in composition (e.g., rhyolitic, dacitic, andesite, pantellerite, phonolite, trachyte), but basaltic and other compositions are known. Pumice is commonly pale in colour, ranging from white, cream, blue or grey, to green-brown or black. It forms when volcanic gases ex-solving from viscous magma form bubbles that remain within the viscous magma as it cools to glass. Pumice is a common product of explosive eruptions (plinian and ignimbrite-forming) and commonly forms zones in upper parts of silicic lava. Pumice has an average porosity of 90%, and initially floats on water.
Scoria differs from pumice in being denser. With larger vesicles and thicker vesicle walls, it sinks rapidly. The difference is the result of the lower viscosity of the magma that forms scoria. When larger amounts of gas are present, the result is a finer-grained variety of pumice known as pumicite. Pumice is considered a glass because it has no crystal structure. Pumice varies in density according to the thickness of the solid material between the bubbles; many samples float in water. After the explosion of Krakatoa, rafts of pumice drifted through the Pacific Ocean for up to 20 years, with tree trunks floating among them. In fact, pumice rafts disperse and support several marine species. In 1979, 1984 and 2006, underwater volcanic eruptions near Tonga created large pumice rafts, some as large as 30 kilometres (19 mi) that floated hundreds of kilometres to Fiji.
There are two main forms of vesicles. Most pumice contains tubular microvesicles that can impart a silky or fibrous fabric. The elongation of the microvesicles occurs due to ductile elongation in the volcanic conduit or, in the case of pumiceous lava, during flow. The other form of vesicles are sub-spherical to spherical and result from high vapour pressure during eruption.
How Does Pumice Form?
The pore spaces (known as vesicles) in pumice are a clue to how it forms. The vesicles are actually gas bubbles that were trapped in the rock during the rapid cooling of a gas-rich frothy magma. The material cools so quickly that atoms in the melt are not able to arrange themselves into a crystalline structure. Thus, pumice is an amorphous volcanic glass known as a "mineraloid."
Some magma contain several percent dissolved gas by weight while they are under pressure. Stop for a moment and think about that. Gas weighs very little at Earth's surface, but these magma under pressure can contain several percent gas by weight held in solution.
This is similar to the large amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in a sealed bottle of carbonated beverage such as beer or soda. If you shake the container, then immediately open the bottle, the sudden release of pressure allows the gas to come out of solution, and the beverage erupts from the container in a frothy mess.
A rising body of magma, supercharged with dissolved gas under pressure, behaves in a similar way. As the magma breaks through Earth's surface, the sudden pressure drop causes the gas to come out of solution. This is what produces the enormous rush of high-pressure gas from the vent.
This rush of gas from the vent shreds the magma and blows it out as a molten froth. The froth rapidly solidifies as it flies through the air and falls back to Earth as pieces of pumice. The largest volcanic eruptions can eject many cubic kilometres of material. This material can range in size from tiny dust particles to large blocks of pumice the size of a house.
Large eruptions can blanket the landscape around the volcano with over 100 meters of pumice and launch dust and ash high into the atmosphere.
The sections below give quotations from United States Geological Survey reports describing the production of pumice at two major eruptions.
Composition of Pumice
Pumice is often formed from the rhyolitic lava which is usually light coloured and are rarely formed from the erupted basaltic or andesitic composition.
The pumice is made from the gas escapes of the volcanic eruption. This makes abundant vesicles of the pumice to float on water surface. The pumice have thin walls which makes it light weight and the specific gravity of pumice is less than one that gives it the ability to float on water surface. When abundant pumice is deposited by the lava flow, sometimes large amount enough that makes an island which can float for a some years till the time when island is water saturated and it sinks to bottom.
Gas and Pumice at the Pinatubo Eruption
The second most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century was at Mount Pinatubo in 1991. The description below explains how enormous volumes of dissolved gas powered the eruption and how a cubic mile of ash and pumice lapilli was blasted from the volcano.
Mount Mazama Eruption (Crater Lake)
The cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago started from a single vent on the northeast side of the volcano as a towering column of pumice and ash that reached some 30 miles high. Winds carried the ash across much of the Pacific Northwest and parts of southern Canada. So much magma erupted that the volcano began to collapse in on itself. As the summit collapsed, circular cracks opened up around the peak. More magma erupted through these cracks to race down the slopes as pyroclastic flows. Deposits from these flows partially filled the valleys around Mount Mazama with up to 300 feet of pumice and ash. As more magma was erupted, the collapse progressed until the dust settled to reveal a volcanic depression, called a caldera, 5 miles in diameter and one mile deep.
Uses of Pumice
Pumice is widely used to make lightweight concrete or insulative low-density cinder blocks. When used as an additive for cement, a fine-grained version of pumice called pozzolan is mixed with lime to form a light-weight, smooth, plaster-like concrete. This form of concrete was used as far back as Roman times. Roman engineers used it to build the huge dome of the Pantheon and as construction material for many aqueducts.
It is also used as an abrasive, especially in polishes, pencil erasers, cosmetic exfoliants, and the production of stone-washed jeans. "Pumice stones" are often used in beauty salons during the pedicure process to remove dry and excess skin from the bottom of the foot as well as calluses. It was also used in ancient Greek and Roman times to remove excess hair. Finely ground pumice is added to some toothpastes and heavy-duty hand cleaners (such as Lava soap) as a mild abrasive. Pumice is also used as a growing substrate for growing horticultural crops. Some brands of chinchilla dust bath are made of powdered pumice.
Owing to its high demand particularly for water filtration, chemical spill containment, cement manufacturing, horticulture and increasingly for the pet industry, the mining of pumice in environmentally sensitive areas has been under more scrutiny after such an operation was stopped in the U.S. state of Oregon, at Rock Mesa in the southern part of the Three Sisters Wilderness.
The other use of pumice is as a decorative in landscaping and is used as drainage rock and soil in planting.