Carbonate Petrography

Carbonate petrography is the study of limestones, dolomites and associated deposits under optical or electron microscopes greatly enhances field studies or core observations and can provide a frame of reference for geochemical studies.

25 strangest Geologic Formations on Earth

The strangest formations on Earth.

What causes Earthquake?

Of these various reasons, faulting related to plate movements is by far the most significant. In other words, most earthquakes are due to slip on faults.

The Geologic Column

As stated earlier, no one locality on Earth provides a complete record of our planet’s history, because stratigraphic columns can contain unconformities. But by correlating rocks from locality to locality at millions of places around the world, geologists have pieced together a composite stratigraphic column, called the geologic column, that represents the entirety of Earth history.

Folds and Foliations

Geometry of Folds Imagine a carpet lying flat on the floor. Push on one end of the carpet, and it will wrinkle or contort into a series of wavelike curves. Stresses developed during mountain building can similarly warp or bend bedding and foliation (or other planar features) in rock. The result a curve in the shape of a rock layer is called a fold.

Types of weathering


 The texture of granite changes as it weathers.
Weathering refers to the combination of processes that break up and corrode solid rock, eventually transforming it into sediment. Geologists refer to rock that has not undergone weathering as unweathered or “fresh” (figure above). Rock exposed at the Earth’s surface sooner or later crumbles away because of weathering. Just as a plumber can unclog a drain by using physical force (with a plumber’s snake) or by causing a chemical reaction (with a dose of liquid drain opener), nature can attack rocks via two types of weathering: physical and chemical. 

Types of weathering

Physical Weathering 

Clasts are classified by grain diameter.
Physical weathering, sometimes referred to as mechanical weathering, breaks intact rock into unconnected clasts (grains or chunks), collectively called debris or detritus. Each size range of clasts has a name (table above). Many different phenomena contribute to physical weathering, as described below. 


Rocks buried deep in the Earth’s crust endure enormous pressure due to the weight of overlying rock or overburden. Rocks at depth are also warmer than rocks nearer the surface because of the Earth’s geothermal gradient. Over long periods of time, moving water, air, and ice at the Earth’s surface grind away and remove overburden, a process called erosion, so rock formerly at depth rises closer to the Earth’s surface. As a result, the pressure squeezing this rock decreases, and the rock  also becomes cooler. A change in pressure and temperature causes rock to change shape slightly. Such changes cause hard rock to break. Natural cracks that form in rocks due to removal of overburden or due to cooling are known as joints.
Joints (natural cracks) break bedrock into blocks and sheets, which can tumble down a slope.
Almost all rock outcrops contain joints. Some joints are fairly planar, some curving, and some irregular. For example, large granite plutons may split into onion-like sheets along joints that lie parallel to the mountain face; this process is called exfoliation. Sedimentary rock beds, however, may break into rectangular blocks bounded by joints on the sides and bed (layer) surfaces above and below (a in figure above). Regardless of their orientation, the formation of joints turns formerly intact bedrock into separate blocks. Eventually, these blocks topple from the outcrop at which they formed. After a while, they may collect in an apron of talus, the rock rubble at the base of a slope (b in figure above).
Wedging is one type of physical (mechanical) weathering.

Frost wedging

Freezing water bursts pipes and shatters bottles because water expands when it freezes and pushes the walls of the container apart. The same phenomenon happens in rock. When the water trapped in a joint freezes, it forces the joint open and may cause the joint to grow. Such frost wedging helps break blocks free from intact bedrock (a in figure above). 

Salt wedging

In arid climates, dissolved salt in groundwater precipitates and grows as crystals in open pore spaces in rocks. This process, called salt wedging, pushes apart the surrounding grains and weakens the rock so that when exposed to wind and rain, the rock disintegrates into separate grains. The same phenomenon happens along the coast, where salt spray percolates into rock and then dries (b in figure above). 

Root wedging

Have you ever noticed how the roots of an old tree can break up a side walk? As roots grow, they apply pressure to their surroundings, and can push joints open in a process known as root wedging (c in figure above). 

Thermal expansion

When the heat of an intense forest fire bakes a rock, the outer layer of the rock expands. On cooling, the layer contracts. This change creates forces in the rock sufficient to make the outer part of the rock break off in sheet-like pieces. Recent research suggests that the intense heat of the Sun’s rays sweeping across dark rocks in a desert may cause the rocks to fracture into thin slices.

Animal attack

Animal life also contributes to physical weathering: burrowing creatures, from earthworms to gophers, push open cracks and move rock fragments. And in the past century, humans have become perhaps the most energetic agent of physical weathering on the planet. When we excavate quarries, foundations, mines, or roadbeds by digging and blasting, we shatter and displace rock that might otherwise have remained intact for millions of years more.

Chemical Weathering 

Up to now, we've taken the plumber’s-snake approach to breaking up rock. Now let’s look at the liquid-drain-opener approach. Chemical weathering refers to the many chemical reactions that alter or destroy minerals when rock comes in contact with water solutions and/or air. Common reactions involved in chemical weathering include the following:
Dissolution is one type of chemical weathering.
  • Dissolution: Chemical weathering during which minerals dissolve into water is called dissolution. Dissolution primarily affects salts and carbonate minerals (a and b in figure above), but even quartz dissolves slightly.
  • Hydrolysis: During hydrolysis, water chemically reacts with minerals and breaks them down (lysis means loosen in Greek) to form other minerals. For example, hydrolysis reactions in feldspar produce clay. 
  • Oxidation: Oxidation reactions in rocks transform iron bearing minerals (such as biotite and pyrite) into a rusty brown mixture of various iron-oxide and iron-hydroxide minerals. In effect, iron-bearing rocks can “rust.” 
  • Hydration: Hydration, the absorption of water into the crystal structure of minerals, causes some minerals, such as certain types of clay, to expand. Such expansion weakens rock.
Not all minerals undergo chemical weathering at the same rates. Some weather in a matter of months or years, whereas others remain unweathered for millions of years. For example, when a granite (which contains quartz, mica, and feldspar) undergoes chemical weathering, most of its minerals except  quartz transform to clay. Until fairly recently, geoscientists tended to think of chemical weathering as a strictly inorganic chemical reaction, occurring entirely independently of life forms. But researchers now realize that organisms play a major role in the chemical-weathering process. For example, the roots of plants, fungi, and lichens secrete organic acids that help dissolve minerals in rocks; these organisms extract nutrients from the minerals. Microbes, such as bacteria, are amazing in that they literally eat minerals for lunch. Bacteria pluck off molecules from minerals and use the energy from the molecules’ chemical bonds to supply their own life force.

Physical and Chemical Weathering  Working Together 

So far we've looked at the processes of chemical and physical weathering separately, but in the real world they happen together, aiding one another in disintegrating rock to form sediment.
Physical and chemical processes work together during the weathering process.
Physical weathering speeds up chemical weathering. To understand why, keep in mind that chemical-weathering reactions take place at the surface of a material. Thus, the overall rate at which chemical weathering occurs depends on the ratio of surface area to volume the greater the surface area, the faster the volume as a whole can chemically weather. When jointing (physical weathering) breaks a large block of rock into smaller pieces, the surface area increases, so chemical weathering happens faster (a in figure above).
Similarly, chemical weathering speeds up physical weathering by dissolving away grains or cements that hold a rock together, transforming hard minerals (like feldspar) into soft minerals (like clay) and causing minerals to absorb water and expand. These phenomena make rock weaker, so it can disintegrate more easily (b in figure above).
Differential weathering.
Weathering happens faster at edges, and even faster at the corners of broken blocks. This is because weathering attacks a flat face from only one direction, an edge from two directions, and a corner from three directions. Thus, with time, edges of blocks become blunt and corners become rounded 9a in figure above). 
In rocks such as granite, which do not contain layering that can affect weathering rates, rectangular blocks transform into a spheroidal shape (b in figure above).
When different rocks in an outcrop undergo weathering at different rates, we say that the outcrop has undergone “differential weathering.” As a result of this process, cliffs composed of a variety of rock layers take on a stair-step or sawtooth shape (c in figure above). You can easily see the consequences of differential weathering if you walk through a graveyard. The inscriptions on some headstones are sharp and clear, whereas those on other stones have become blunted or have even disappeared (d in figure above). That’s because the minerals in these different stones have different resistances to weathering. Granite, an igneous rock with a high quartz content, retains inscriptions the longest. But marble, a metamorphic rock composed of calcite, dissolves away relatively rapidly in acidic rain.

Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)


Correlation of Strata

The need to classify and organize rock layers according to relative age led to the geologic discipline of stratigraphy.

Rocks at different locations on Earth give different "snapshots" of the geologic time column.  At a particular location, the rocks never fully represent the entire geologic rock column due to extensive erosion or periods of non-deposition or erosion.

The thickness of a particular rock layer (representing a particular time period) will vary from one location to another or even disappear altogether.

The process that stratigraphers use to understand these relationships between strata at different localities is known as "correlation".

For example, rocks named Juras (for the Juras Mountains) in France and Switzerland were traced northward and found to overlie a group of rocks in Germany namedTrias.  The Trias rocks in turn, were found to underlie rocks named Cretaceous in England (the chalky “White Cliffs of Dover”).

Based on these relationships, is the Juras older or younger than the Cretaceous?  What are the two possible scenarios?

The location where a particular rock layer was discovered is called a "type locality".  Most of the “type localities” of the geologic time column are located in Europe because this is where the science of stratigraphic correlation started.

The Sedgwick/Murchison Debate

In 1835, Adam Sedgwick (Britain) and Roderick Murchison (Scotland) decided to name the entire succession of sedimentary rocks exposed throughout Europe.  They were geology colleagues and friends, but they had a famous argument over the division between the Cambrian and Silurian in Wales. 

Sedgwick’s topmost Cambrian overlapped with Murchison’s lowermost Silurian.  Eventually the disputed rock layers were assigned the age “Ordovician”.
Rocks Divisions versus Time Divisions

It is important to remember that the rock record is an incomplete representation of real geologic time due to the presence of unconformities.

Therefore, geologists are careful to distinguish geologic time from the rocks that represent snapshots of geologic time:


Examples: Precambrian/Phanerozoic


          Examples: Paleozoic/Cenozoic/Mesozoic


               Examples: Cambrian/Ordovician/Silurian

                    Formations (The main stratigraphic unit)

Rock divisions, such as the Cambrian System, can be correlated worldwide based on fossils.  In contrast, rock units such as groups, formations, and members are localized subsets of systems.  Rock units depend on the environment of deposition, which varies from one location to another.
Stratigraphic Rock Units

The rock divisions (Eonothem, Erathem, and System) simply divide rocks into the appropriate time eon, era, or period.  Obviously, all Cambrian System rocks are from the Cambrian regardless of their location on Earth's surface.

In contrast, the rock units (Groups, Formations, Members) are localized features (of limited regional extent) that depend on the local environment of deposition. 

The main rock unit of stratigraphy is the formation, a localized and distinctive (easily recognizable) geologic feature (i.e., the Chinle Formation of Late Triassic lake and river deposits in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico).

Different formations are distinguished and correlated based upon lithology (overall rock characteristics), which includes:

1) Composition of mineral grains
2) Color
3) Texture (grain size, sedimentary structures)
4) Fossils

Formations are “clumped” into groups and divided into members.

Datum- In correlation, a datum is a line of equivalent age.

The ideal datum is a stratigraphic marker that is both geographically extensive and represents an instantaneous moment in geologic time.  A good example is a volcanic ash layer that formed by a specific volcanic eruption followed by worldwide dispersal by atmospheric currrents.
Using Fossils for Strata Correlation

Sedimentary rocks that date from the same age can be correlated over long distances with the help of fossils.

Principle of Fossil Correlation- Strata containing similar collections of fossils (called fossil assemblages) are of similar age.  Also, fossils at the bottom of the strata are older than fossils closer to the top of the strata.

Index Fossils- Index fossils are the main type of fossil used in correlation.  To be an index fossil, a fossil species must be:

1) Easily recognized (unique).
2) Widespread in occurrence from one location to another.
3) Restricted to a limited thickness of strata (limited in age range).

The limited life-spans of these organisms allows us to easily constrain the age of rocks in which they occur.

The best index fossils are those that are free floating and independent of a particular sedimentary environment.  For example, organisms that are attached to one particular type of sediment are going to have limited geographic extent and will not be found in many rock types.   By contrast, organisms that are “free floaters” or “swimmers” will have a wider geographic extent and be found in many different rock types (i.e., trilobites).

fossil zone is an interval of strata characterized by a distinctive index fossil.

Fossil zones typically represent packets of 500,000 to 2,000,000 years.  Fossil zones boundaries do not have to correlate with rock formation boundaries.  Fossil zones may be restricted to a small portion of a formation or they may span more than one formation.

A fundamental assumption in fossil correlation is that once a species goes extinct, it will never reappear in the rock record at a later time.

Fossil types that are generally restricted to just one type of sediment are called facies fossils.  They are not very useful in correlation, but are extremely useful for reconstructing paleoenvironments.
  What is a Fossil?

Some examples of fossils are:

1) The preservation of entire organisms or body parts.  This includes the preservation of actual body parts (mammoths in tundra), as well as morphological preservation via the replacement of biological matter by minerals (petrified wood).
A petrified log in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, U.S.A.-impressions

2) Casts or impressions of organisms.
Eocene fossil fish Priscacara liops from Green River Formation of Utah

3) Tracks.
Trackways from ''Climactichnites'' (probably a slug-like animal), in the Late Cambrian of central Wisconsin.

4) Burrows.
Thalassinoides, burrows produced by crustaceans, from the Middle Jurassic of southern Israel.

5) Fecal matter (called coprolites).
Carnivorous dinosaur dung found in southwestern Saskatchewan,  USGS Image.
Theories on The Origin of Fossils

At one time, fossils were considered to be younger than the rocks in which they occurred.  People speculated that fossils formed when animals crawled into preexisting rock, died, and became preserved in stone.

Some people interpreted the widespread occurrence of fossilized marine organisms on land as support for a world-wide flood as described in scripture.

Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452 - 1519) Interpretation of Fossils
Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1512-1515.

Regarding fossils that occur in strata many miles from the sea, da Vinci argued that:

1) The fossils could not have been washed in during a "Great Deluge" because they could not have traveled hundreds of miles in just 40 days.

2) The unbroken nature of the fossils suggest that they were not transported by violent water; instead the fossils represent formerly living communities of organisms that were preserved in situ.

3) The presence of fossil-rich strata separated by fossil-poor strata suggests that the fossils were not the result of a single worldwide flood, but formed during many separate events.
Lateral Variations in Formations

Historically, geologists initially believed that the layer-cake sequence of sedimentary rocks existed worldwide (i.e., that the layers extended indefinitely without change).

By the late 1700’s people began to realize that formations had a limited extent both vertically (up and down) and laterally (horizontally across Earth's surface).

People also began to realize that lithologic variations (changes in texture, color, fossils, etc) can occur laterally within formations themselves.

Today we interpret such variations in the context of modern depositional environments.  For example:



Near shore marine- The energy is high due to rough waters at the water-land interface.

Coarse sediments, and fossils of robust organisms that can withstand high energy environments.

Deep ocean- The energy is low due to the general calmness of water away from land.

Fine sediments, and fossils of more fragile organisms.

Note that the two different lithologies can be deposited simultaneously (representing the same moment in geological time) so long as they are deposited at different locations.

Different lithologies grade laterally into one another in a manner called intertonging.  An example is the way that the Old Red Sandstone of Wales (a terrestrial deposit) grades laterally into marine sediments of Devonshire to the south (both are Devonian).

Intertonging reflects the changes in depositional environments that occur over space and time (lateral and temporal variations).  Often these changes in environment are linked to shoreline migrations resulting from sea-level changes over time.
 Depositional Environments and Sedimentary Facies

Depositonal environments are characterized initially by the sediments that accumulate within them, and ultimately by the sedimentary rock types that form.  For example, a reef environment is characterized by carbonate reef-building organisms.  Ultimately, the sediments become lithified to form fossiliferous limestone.

sedimentary facies is a three-dimensional body of sediment (or rock) that contains lithologies representative of a particular depositional environment.  For example,




Mudstone and shale with interbedded sandstone.

Ocean basin

Laminated pelagic clays, cherts, and possible limestone.


Well-sorted, well-rounded, and possibly cross-bedded sandstone.

Analysis of sedimentary facies helps geologists to reconstruct past geologic environments and paleogeography.
Transgressions vs. Regressions

The sea-level has fluctuated throughout geologic history, and these changes have a profound effect on the geologic rock record.

transgression is an advance of the sea over land.

regression is a retreat of the sea from land area.

A transgressive facies pattern is characterized by:

1. The movement of marine facies landward over terrestrial facies.
2. A fining-upward sequence (the new marine environment is lower energy than the prior terrestrial environment).
3. A basal, erosional unconformity (erosion was more profound before the seas advanced).

A regressive facies pattern is characterized by:

1. The movement of terrestrial facies seaward and over marine facies.
2. A coarsening-upward sequence.
3. An erosional unconformity at the top.

Walther’s Law- Over time, the lateral changes in sedimentary facies due to transgressions and regressions will also produce vertical changes in sedimentary facies:

1. A transgressive facies sequence fines in the direction of the transgression, and also fines upward.
2. A regressive facies sequence coarsens in the direction of the regression, and also coarsens upward.

What causes transgressions and regressions?

1. Worldwide rises and falls in sea level (eustatic changes), perhaps related to climatic change.
2. Tectonic uplift, isostatic rebound, or crustal subsidence.
3. Rapid sedimentation.

It is often difficult or impossible to determine the exact cause of a transgression or regression seen in the geologic record.  The cause may be worldwide or local.  The fact that there is a transgression or regression indicates an “apparent” sea-level change.
 The Stratigraphy of Unconformities

Recall that unconformities represent missing time due to:

1)      Periods of non-deposition.
2)      Periods of erosion.

The main types of unconformities are:
1. Disconformity
2. Angular unconformity
3. Nonconformity
4. Paraconformity

Unconformities vary from one location to another (just like rock formations and sedimentary facies).  In other words, some locations along the unconformity surface will represent more missing geologic time than others.

Unconformities may eventually disappear laterally and transition into a conformable sequence of strata.

Oil companies use large scale, unconformity bounded rock units called sequences to correlate rocks in a process called sequence stratigraphy.

Six major unconformity-bounded sequences are recognized worldwide in the Phanerozoic.  These sequences are not restricted to period or era boundaries.

The major sequences are believed to represent worldwide fluctuations in sea-level.

Different styles of Volcano

Different styles of Volcano

There are different styles of volcano on the face of Earth and yes the subsurface too.

Volcano Architecture 

Crater eruptions and fissure eruptions come from conduits of different shapes.
Melting in the upper mantle and lower crust produces magma, which rises into the upper crust. Typically, this magma accumulates underground in a magma chamber, a zone of open spaces and/or fractured rock that can contain a large quantity of magma. A portion of the magma may solidify in the magma chamber and transform into intrusive igneous rock, whereas the rest rises through an opening, or conduit, to the Earth’s surface and erupts from a volcano.  The conduit may have the shape of a vertical pipe, or chimney, or may be a crack called a fissure (figure above a and b). At the top of a volcanic edifice, a circular depression called a crater (shaped like a bowl, up to 500 m across and 200 m deep) may develop. Craters form either during eruption as material accumulates around the summit vent, or just after eruption as the summit collapses into the drained conduit.
The formation of volcanic calderas.
During major eruptions, the sudden draining of a magma chamber produces a caldera, a big circular depression up to thousands of meters across and up to several hundred meters deep. Typically, a caldera has steep walls and a fairly flat floor and may be partially filled with ash.
Different shapes of volcanoes.
Geologists distinguish among several different shapes of subaerial (above sea level) volcanic edifices. Shield volcanoes, broad, gentle domes, are so named because they resemble a soldier’s shield lying on the ground (a in figure above). They form when the products of eruption have low viscosity and thus are weak, so they cannot pile up around the vent but rather spread out over large areas. Scoria cones (informally called cinder cones) consist of cone-shaped piles of basaltic lapilli and blocks, generally from a single eruption (b in figure above). Strato-volcanoes, also known as composite volcanoes, are large and cone-shaped, generally with steeper slopes near the summit, and consist of interleaved layers of lava, tephra, and volcaniclastic debris (c in figure above). Their shape, exemplified by Japan’s Mt. Fuji, supplies the classic image that most people have of a volcano; the prefix strato- emphasizes that they can grow to be kilometres high.

Concept of Eruptive Style: Will It Flow, or Will It Blow? 

Kilauea, a volcano on Hawaii, produces rivers of lava that cascade down the volcano’s flanks. Mt. St. Helens, a volcano near the Washington–Oregon border, exploded catastrophically in 1980 and blanketed the surrounding countryside with tephra. Clearly, different volcanoes erupt differently and, as we've noted, successive eruptions from the same stratovolcano may differ markedly in character from one another. Geologists refer to the character of an eruption as eruptive style. Below, we describe several distinct eruptive styles and explore why the differences occur.
Contrasting eruptive styles.

Effusive eruptions 

The term effusive comes from the Latin word for pour out, and indeed that’s what happens during an effusive eruption lava pours out a summit vent or fissure, filling a lava lake around the crater and/or flowing in molten rivers for great distances (a in figure above). Effusive eruptions occur where the magma feeding the volcano is hot and mafic and, therefore, has low viscosity. Pressure, applied to the magma chamber by the weight of overlying rock, squeezes magma upward and out of the vent; in some cases, the pressure is great enough to drive the magma up into a fountain over the vent.

Explosive eruptions 

When pressure builds in a volcano, the eruption will likely yield an explosion. Smaller explosions take place during basaltic eruptions, when gas builds up and suddenly escapes, spattering lava drops and blobs upward these then solidify and fall as tephra. Occasionally, a volcano blows up in a huge explosion. Such catastrophic explosions can be triggered by many causes. For example, if a crack forms in the flank of an island volcano, water will enter the magma chamber and suddenly turn to steam, the expansion of which blasts the volcano apart. Such explosions can also happen in felsic or andesitic volcanoes, if very viscous magma plugs the vent until huge pressure builds inside. If the plug eventually cracks, or the flank of the volcano cracks, the gas inside the volcano suddenly expands, and like a giant shotgun blast, it sprays out the molten contents of the volcano and may cause the volcano itself to break apart. Such explosions, awesome in their power and catastrophic in their consequences, can eject cubic kilometres of debris outward. In some cases, the sudden draining of the magma chamber, and the ejection of debris, causes the remnants of the volcano to collapse and form a caldera.
During a large explosion, the force of the blast shoots debris skyward in a vertical column (b in figure above). But the force can only take the material so high. The huge plumes of ash that rise to stratospheric heights above large explosions do so by becoming turbulent, billowing, convective clouds. This means that the warm mixture of volcanic ash, gas, and air is less dense than the surrounding, cooler air, so the warm mixture rises buoyantly. The resulting plume resembles a mushroom cloud above a nuclear explosion. Coarser-grained ash and lapilli settle from the cloud close to the volcano, whereas finer ash gets carried farther away. Some ash enters high-elevation winds and will be carried around the globe. The denser components collapse downward once they run out of explosive energy, and gravity pulls them back down. This phenomenon, the “collapse” of the column, produces the pyroclastic flows that surge down a volcano’s flanks. What is a pyroclastic flow like? In 1902, the people of St. Pierre, a town on the Caribbean island of Martinique, sadly found out. St. Pierre was a busy port town, about 7 km south of the peak of Mt. Pelée, a volcano. When the volcano began emitting steam and lapilli, residents of the town became nervous and debated about the need to evacuate. Meanwhile, a rhyolite dome grew and obstructed the throat of the volcano. On May 8, the dome suddenly cracked, and the immense pressure that had been building beneath the obstruction was released. In the same way that champagne bursts out of a bottle when you pull out the cork, a cloud of hot ash and pumice lapilli spewed out of Mt. Pelée, and a pyroclastic flow swept 
down Pelée’s flank. Partly riding on a cushion of air, this flow reached speeds of 300 km per hour, and slammed into St. Pierre. Within moments, all the town’s buildings had been flattened and all but two of its 28,000 inhabitants were dead of incineration or asphyxiation. Similar eruptions have happened more recently on the nearby island of Montserrat, but with a much smaller death toll because of timely evacuation (c in figure above).

Relation of eruptive style to volcanic type

Note that the type of volcano (shield, cinder cone, or composite) depends on its eruptive style. Volcanoes that have only effusive eruptions become shield volcanoes, those that generate small pyroclastic eruptions due to fountaining basaltic lava yield cinder cones, and those that alternate between effusive and large pyroclastic eruptions become composite volcanoes (stratovolcanoes). Large explosions yield calderas and blanket the surrounding countryside with ash and/or ignimbrites. Why are there such contrasts in eruptive style? Eruptive style depends on the viscosity and gas contents of the magma in the volcano. These characteristics, in turn, depend on the composition and temperature of the magma and on the environment (subaerial or submarine) in which the eruption occurs. Traditionally, geologists have classified volcanoes according to their eruptive style, each style named after a well known example.

Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)

The Products of Volcanic Eruptions

Products of Volcanic Eruptions

The drama of a volcanic eruption transfers materials from inside the Earth to our planet’s surface. Products of an eruption come in three forms lava flows, pyroclastic debris, and gas. Note that we use the name flow for both a molten, moving layer of lava and for the solid layer of rock that forms when the lava freezes.

Lava Flows 

The character of a lava flow depends on its viscosity.
Sometimes it races down the side of a volcano like a fast moving, incandescent stream, sometimes it builds into a rubble-covered mound at a volcano’s summit, and sometimes it oozes like a sticky but scalding paste. Clearly, not all lava behaves in the same way when it rises out of a volcano. Therefore, not all lava flows look the same. Why? The character of a lava primarily reflects its viscosity (resistance to flow), and not all lavas have the same viscosity. Differences in viscosity depend, in turn, on chemical composition, temperature, gas content, and crystal content. Silica content plays a particularly key role in controlling viscosity. Silica poor (basaltic) lava is less viscous, and thus flows farther than does silica-rich (rhyolitic) lava (figure above). To illustrate the different ways in which lava behaves, we now examine flows of different compositions.

Basaltic lava flows 

Features of basaltic lava flows. They have low viscosity thus can flow for long distances. Their surface and interior can be complex.
Basaltic (mafic) lava has very low viscosity when it first emerges from a volcano because it contains relatively little silica and is very hot. Thus, on the steep slopes near the summit of a volcano, it can flow very quickly, sometimes at speeds of over 30 km per hour (figure above a). The lava slows down to less-than-walking pace after it starts to cool (figure above b). Most flows measure less than a few km long, but some flows reach as far as 600 km from the source. How can lava travel such distances? Although all the lava in a flow moves when it first emerges, rapid cooling causes the surface of the flow to crust over after the flow has moved a short distance from the source. The solid crust serves as insulation, allowing the hot interior of the flow to remain liquid and continue to move. As time progresses, part of the flow’s interior solidifies, so eventually, molten lava moves only through a tunnel-like passageway, or lava tube, within the flow the largest of these may be tens of meters in diameter. In some cases, lava tubes drain and eventually become empty tunnels.
The surface texture of a basaltic lava flow when it finally freezes reflects the timing of freezing relative to its movement. Basalt flows with warm, pasty surfaces wrinkle into smooth, glassy, rope-like ridges; geologists have adopted the Hawaiian word pahoehoe (pronounced “pa-hoy-hoy”) for such flows (figure above c). If the surface layer of the lava freezes and then breaks up due to the continued movement of lava underneath, it becomes a jumble of sharp, angular fragments, creating a rubbly flow also called by its Hawaiian name, a’a’ (pronounced “ah-ah”) (figure above d). Footpaths made by people living in basaltic volcanic regions follow the smooth surface of pahoehoe rather than the foot-slashing surface of a’a’. 
During the final stages of cooling, lava flows contract, because rock shrinks as it loses heat, and may fracture into polygonal columns. This type of fracturing is called columnar jointing (figure above e). 
Basaltic flows that erupt underwater look different from those that erupt on land because the lava cools so much more quickly in water. Because of rapid cooling, submarine basaltic lava can travel only a short distance before its surface freezes, producing a glass-encrusted blob, or “pillow” (figure above f). The rind of a pillow momentarily stops the flow’s advance, but within minutes the pressure of the lava squeezing into the pillow breaks the rind, and a new blob of lava squirts out, freezes, and produces another pillow. In some cases, successive pillows add to the end of previous ones, forming worm-like chains.

Andesitic and rhyolitic lava flows

This rhyolite dome formed about 650 years ago, in Panum Crater, California. Tephra (cinders) accumulated around the vent.
Because of its higher silica content and thus its greater viscosity, andesitic lava cannot flow as easily as basaltic lava. When erupted, andesitic lava first forms a large mound above the vent. This mound then advances slowly down the volcano’s flank at only about 1 to 5 m a day, in a lumpy flow with a bulbous snout. Typically, andesitic flows are less than a few km long. Because the lava moves so slowly, the outside of the flow has time to solidify; so as it moves, the surface breaks up into angular blocks, and the whole flow looks like a jumble of rubble called blocky lava.
Rhyolitic lava is the most viscous of all lavas because it is the most silicic and the coolest. Therefore, it tends to accumulate either above the vent in a lava dome (figure above), or in short and bulbous flows rarely more than 1 to 2 km long. Sometimes rhyolitic lava freezes while still in the vent and then pushes upward as a column-like spire up to 100 m above the vent. Rhyolitic flows, where they do form, have broken and blocky surfaces.

Volcaniclastic Deposits 

On a mild day in February 1943, as Dionisio Pulido prepared to sow the fertile soil of his field 330 km (200 miles) west of Mexico City, an earthquake jolted the ground, as it had dozens of times in the previous days. But this time, to Dionisio’s amazement, the surface of his field visibly bulged upward by a few meters and then cracked. Ash and sulfurous fumes filled the air, and Dionisio fled. When he returned the following morning, his field lay buried beneath a 40-m-high mound of gray cinders Dionisio had witnessed the birth of Paricutín, a new volcano. During the next several months, Paricutín erupted continuously, at times blasting clots of lava into the sky like fireworks. By the following year, it had become a steep-sided cone 330 m high. Nine years later, when the volcano ceased erupting, its lava and debris covered 25 square km. 
This description of Paricutín’s eruption, and that of  Vesuvius at the beginning of this chapter, emphasizes that volcanoes can erupt large quantities of fragmental igneous material. Geologists use the general term volcaniclastic deposits for accumulations of this material. Volcaniclastic deposits include pyroclastic debris (from the Greek pyro, meaning fire), which forms from lava that flies into the air and freezes. They also include the debris formed when an eruption blasts apart pre-existing volcanic rock that surrounds the volcano’s vent, the debris that accumulates after tumbling down the volcano in landslides or after being transported in water-rich slurries, and the debris formed as lava flows break up or shatter. 

Pyroclastic debris from basaltic eruptions

Pyroclastic debris from basaltic eruptions.
Basaltic magma rising in a volcano may contain dissolved volatiles (such as water). As such magma approaches the surface, the volatiles form bubbles. When the bubbles reach the surface, they burst and eject clots and drops of molten magma upward to form dramatic fountains (figure above a). To picture this process, think of the droplets that spray from a newly opened bottle of soda. Solidification of the pea-sized fragments of glassy lava and scoria produces a type of lapilli (from the Latin word for little stones). Pieces of this type of lapilli are informally known as cinders. Rarely, flying droplets may trail thin strands of lava, which freeze into filaments of glass known as Pelé’s hair, after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, and the droplets themselves freeze into tiny streamlined glassy beads known as Pelé’s tears. Apple- to refrigerator-sized fragments called blocks (figure above b) may consist of already-solid volcanic rock, broken up during the eruption such blocks tend to be angular and chunky. In some cases, however, blocks form when soft lava squirts out of the vent and then solidifies such blocks, also known as bombs, have streaked, polished surfaces.

Pyroclastic debris from andesitic or rhyolitic eruptions

The components of an explosive eruption.
Andesitic or rhyolitic lava is more viscous than basalt, and may be more gas-rich. The lava flows tend to be blocky to start with, and blocks of flows may tumble down the volcano. Eruptions of these lavas also tend to be explosive. Debris ejected from explosive eruptions includes fragments of pumice and ash. Ash consists of particles less than 2 mm in diameter, made from both glass shards formed when frothy lava explosively breaks up during an eruption, and from pulverized pre-existing volcanic rock (figure above a). Two types of lapilli are produced by explosive eruptions: pumice lapilli consists of angular pumice fragments formed from frothy lava (figure above b); accretionary lapilli consists of snowball-like lumps of ash formed when ash mixes with water in the air and then sticks together (figure above c). 
Much of the pyroclastic debris erupted from an exploding volcano billows upward in a turbulent cloud that can reach stratospheric heights (figure above d). Some, however, rushes down the flank of the volcano in an avalanche-like current known as a pyroclastic flow (figure above e). Pyroclastic flows were once known as nuées ardentes (French for glowing cloud), because the debris they contain can be quite hot 200C to 450C. 
Unconsolidated deposits of pyroclastic grains, regardless of size, constitute tephra. Ash, or ash mixed with lapilli, becomes tuff when buried and transformed into coherent rock. Tuff that formed from ash and/or pumice lapilli that fell like snow from the sky is called air-fall tuff, whereas a sheet of tuff that formed from a pyroclastic flow is an ignimbrite. Ash and pumice lapilli in an ignimbrite is sometimes so hot that it welds together to form a hard mass.

Other volcaniclastic deposits

In cases where volcanoes are covered with snow and ice, or are drenched with rain, water mixes with debris to form a volcanic debris flow that moves downslope like wet concrete. Very wet, ash-rich debris flows become a slurry called a lahar, which can reach speeds of 50 km per hour and may travel for tens of kilometers. When debris flows and lahars stop moving, they yield a layer consisting of volcanic debris suspended in ashy mud.

Volcanic Gas 

The gas component of volcanic eruptions.
Most magma contains dissolved gases, including water, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and hydrogen sulphide (H2O, CO2, SO2, and H2S). In fact, up to 9% of a magma may consist of gaseous components, and generally, lavas with more silica contain a greater proportion of gas. Volcanic gases come out of solution when the magma approaches the Earth’s surface and pressure decreases, just as bubbles come out of solution in a soda when you pop the bottle top off. 
In low-viscosity magma, gas bubbles can rise faster than the magma moves, and thus most reach the surface of the magma and enter the atmosphere before the lava does. Thus some volcanoes may, for a while, produce large quantities of steam, without much lava (figure above a). The last bubbles to form, however, freeze into the lava and become holes called vesicles (figure above b). In high-viscosity magmas, the gas has trouble escaping because bubbles can’t push through the sticky lava. When this happens, explosive pressures build inside or beneath the volcano.

Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)

Mars Mission

Plate tectonics activity

Plate-Tectonic Context of Igneous Activity 

Melting occurs only in special locations where conditions lead to decompression, addition of volatiles, and/or heat transfer. The conditions that lead to melting and, therefore, to igneous activity, can develop in four geologic settings: (figure below) (1) along volcanic arcs bordering oceanic trenches; (2) at hot spots; (3) within continental rifts; (4) along mid-ocean ridges. Let’s look more carefully at melting and igneous rock production at these  settings, in the context of plate-tectonics theory, with a focus on the types of igneous rocks that may form in each setting.

The tectonic setting of igneous rocks

Products of Subduction 

A chain of volcanoes, called a volcanic arc (or just an arc), forms on the overriding plate, adjacent to the deep-ocean trenches that mark convergent plate boundaries. The word “arc” emphasizes that many of these chains define a curve on a map. Continental arcs, such as the Andean arc of South America and the Cascade arc in the northwestern United States, grow along the edge of a continent, where oceanic lithosphere subducts beneath continental lithosphere. Island arcs, such as the Aleutian arc of Alaska and the Mariana arc of the western Pacific, protrude from the ocean at localities where one oceanic plate subducts beneath another. Beneath volcanic arcs, a variety of intrusions plutons, dikes, and sills develop, to be exposed only later, when erosion has removed the volcanic overburden. In some localities, arc-related igneous activity produces huge batholiths. How does subduction trigger melting? Some minerals in oceanic crust rocks contain volatile compounds (mostly water). At shallow depths, volatiles are chemically bonded to the minerals. But when subduction carries crust down into the hot asthenosphere, “wet” crustal rocks warm up. At a depth of about 150 km, crust becomes so hot that volatiles separate from crustal minerals and diffuse up into the overlying asthenosphere. Addition of volatiles causes the hot ultramafic rock in the asthenosphere to undergo partial melting, a process that yields mafic magma. This magma either rises directly, to erupt as basaltic lava, or undergoes fractional crystallization before erupting and evolves into intermediate or felsic lava. In continental volcanic arcs, not all the mantle-derived basaltic magma rises directly to the surface; some gets trapped at the base of the continental crust, and some in magma chambers deep in the crust. When this happens, heat transfers into the continental crust and causes partial melting of this crust. Because much of the continental crust is mafic to intermediate in composition to start with, the resulting magmas are intermediate to felsic in composition. This magma rises, leaving the basalt behind, and either cools higher in the crust to form plutons or rises to the surface and erupts. For this reason, granitic plutons and andesite lavas form at continental arcs.

Products of Hot Spots 

Most researchers think that hotspot volcanoes form above plumes of hot mantle rock from deep in the mantle, though some studies suggest that some hot spots may originate due to other processes happening at shallower depths. According to the plume hypothesis, a column, or “plume” of very hot rock rises like soft plastic up through the overlying mantle beneath a hot spot. (Note that a plume does not consist of magma; it is solid, though relatively soft and able to flow.) When the hot rock of a plume reaches the base of the lithosphere, decompression causes it to undergo partial melting, a process that generates mafic magma. The mafic magma then rises through the lithosphere, pools in a magma chamber in the crust, and eventually erupts at the surface, forming a volcano. In the case of oceanic hot spots, mostly mafic magma erupts. In the case of continental hot spots, some of the mafic magma erupts to form basalt; but some transfers heat to the continental crust, which then partially melts itself, producing felsic magmas that erupt to form rhyolite. 

Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) 

A map showing the distribution of large igneous provinces (LIPs) on Earth. The red areas are or once were underlain by immense volumes of basalt; not all of this basalt is exposed.
In many places on Earth, particularly voluminous quantities of mafic magma have erupted and/or intruded (figure above). Some of these regions occur along the margins of continents, some in the interior of oceanic plates, and some in the interior of continents. The largest of these, the Ontong Java Oceanic Plateau of the western Pacific, covers an area of about 5,000,000 km2 of the sea floor and has a volume of about 50,000,000 km3. Such provinces also occur on land. It’s no surprise that these huge volumes of igneous rock are called large igneous provinces (LIPs). More recently, this term LIP has been applied to huge eruptions of felsic ash too.

Flood basalts form when vast quantities of low-viscosity mafic lava "floods" over the landscape and freezes into a thin sheet. Accumulation of successive flows builds a flat-topped plateau.
Mafic LIPs may form when the bulbous head of a mantle plume first reaches the base of the lithosphere. More partial melting can occur in a plume head than in normal asthenosphere, because temperatures are higher in a plume head. Thus, an unusually large quantity of unusually hot basaltic magma forms in the plume head; when the magma reaches the surface, huge quantities of basaltic lava spew out of the ground. If the plume head lies beneath a rift, added decompression can lead to even more melting (figure above a). The particularly hot basaltic lava that erupts at such localities has such low viscosity that it can flow tens to hundreds of kilometres across the landscape. Geoscientists refer to such flows as flood basalts. Flood basalts make up the bedrock of the Columbia River Plateau in Oregon and Washington (figure above b and c), the Paraná Plateau in southeastern Brazil, the Karoo region of southern Africa, and the Deccan region of southwestern India. 

Igneous Rocks at Rifts 

Successful rifting splits a continent in two and gives birth to a new mid-ocean ridge. As the continental lithosphere thins during rifting, the weight of rock overlying the asthenosphere decreases, so pressure in the asthenosphere decreases and decompression melting produces basaltic magma, which rises into the crust. Some of this magma makes it to the surface and erupts as basalt. However, some of the magma gets trapped in the crust and transfers heat to the crust. The resulting partial melting of the crust yields felsic (silicic) magmas that erupt as rhyolite. Thus, a sequence of volcanic rocks in a rift generally includes basaltic flows and sheets of rhyolitic lava or ash. Locally, the felsic and mafic magmas mix to form intermediate magma.

Forming Igneous Rocks at Mid-Ocean Ridges 

Most igneous rocks at the Earth’s surface form at mid-ocean ridges, that is, along divergent plate boundaries. Think about it the entire oceanic crust, a 7- to 10-km-thick layer of basalt and gabbro that covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, forms at mid-ocean ridges. And this entire volume gets subducted and replaced by new crust, over a period of about 200 million years. Igneous magmas form at mid-ocean ridges for much the same reason they do at hot spots and rifts. As sea-floor spreading occurs and oceanic lithosphere plates drift away from the ridge, hot asthenosphere rises to keep the resulting space filled. As this asthenosphere rises, it undergoes decompression, which leads to partial melting and the generation of basaltic magma. This magma rises into the crust and pools in a shallow magma chamber. Some cools slowly along the margins of the magma chamber to form massive gabbro, while some intrudes upward to fill vertical cracks that appear as newly formed crust splits apart. Magma that cools in the cracks forms basalt dikes, and magma that makes it to the sea floor and extrudes as lava forms pillow basalt flows.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)

Igneous rocks

Characterizing Color and Texture 

If you wander around a city admiring building façades, you'll find that many façades consist of igneous rock, for such rocks tend to be very durable. If you had to describe one of these rocks to a friend, what words might you use? You would  probably start by noting the rock’s colour. Overall, is the rock dark or light? More specifically, is it Gray, pink, white, or black? Describing colour may not be easy, because some igneous rocks contain many visible mineral grains, each with a different colour; but even so, you’ll probably be able to characterize the overall hue of the rock. Generally, the colour reflects the rock’s composition, but it isn't always so simple, because colour may also be influenced by grain size and by the presence of trace amounts of impurities. (For example, the presence of a small amount of iron oxide gives rock a reddish tint.) Next, you would probably characterize the rock’s texture. A description of igneous texture indicates whether the rock consists of glass, crystals, or fragments. If the rock consists of crystals or fragments, a description of texture also specifies the grain size. Here are the common terms for defining texture:
Textures and types of igneous rocks.
  1. Crystalline texture: Rocks that consist of minerals that grow when a melt solidifies interlock like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (a in figure above). Rocks with such a texture are called crystalline igneous rocks. The interlocking of crystals in these rocks occurs because once some grains have developed, they interfere with the growth of  later-formed grains. The last grains to form end up filling irregular spaces between already existing grains. Geologists distinguish subcategories of crystalline igneous rocks according to the size of the crystals. Coarse-grained (phaneritic) rocks have crystals large enough to be identified with the naked eye. Fine-grained (aphanitic) rocks have crystals too small to be identified with the naked eye. Porphyritic rocks have larger crystals surrounded by a mass of fine crystals. In a porphyritic rock, the larger crystals are called phenocrysts, while the mass of finer crystals is called ground mass. 
  2. Fragmental texture: Rocks consisting of igneous chunks and/ or shards that are packed together, welded together, or cemented together after having solidified are fragmental igneous rocks (a in figure above). 
  3. Glassy texture: Rocks made of a solid mass of glass, or of tiny crystals surrounded by glass, are glassy igneous rocks. Glassy rocks fracture conchoidally (b in figure above). 
What factors control the texture of igneous rocks? In the case of non-fragmental rocks, texture largely reflects cooling rate. The presence of glass indicates that cooling happened so quickly that the atoms within a lava didn't have time to arrange into crystal lattices. Crystalline rocks form when a melt cools more slowly. In crystalline rocks, grain size depends on cooling time. A melt that cools rapidly, but not rapidly enough to make glass, forms fine-grained rock, because many crystals form but none has time to grow large (c figure above). A melt that cools very slowly forms a coarse-grained rock, because a few crystals have time to grow large.
Because of the relationship between cooling rate and texture, lava flows, dikes, and sills tend to be composed of fine grained igneous rock. In contrast, plutons tend to be composed of coarse-grained rock. Plutons that intrude into hot wall rock at great depth cool very slowly and thus tend to have larger crystals than plutons that intrude into cool country rock at shallow depth, where they cool relatively rapidly. Porphyritic rocks form when a melt cools in two stages. First, the melt cools slowly at depth, so that phenocrysts form. Then, the melt erupts and the remainder cools quickly, so that groundmass crystallizes around the phenocrysts.
There is, however, an exception to the standard cooling rate and grain size relationship. A very coarse-grained igneous rock called pegmatite doesn't necessarily cool slowly. Pegmatite contains crystals up to tens of centimetres across and occurs in dikes. Because pegmatite occurs in dikes, which generally cool quickly, the coarseness of the rock may seem surprising. Researchers have shown that pegmatites are coarse because they form from water-rich melts in which atoms can move around so rapidly that large crystals can grow very quickly.

Classifying Igneous Rocks 

Because melts can have a variety of compositions and can freeze to form igneous rocks in many different environments above and below the surface of the Earth, we observe a wide spectrum of igneous rock types. We classify these according to their texture and composition. Studying a rock’s texture tells us about the rate at which it cooled, as we've seen, and therefore the environment in which it formed. Studying its composition tells us about the original source of the magma and the way in which the magma evolved before finally solidifying. Below, we introduce some of the more important igneous rock types. 

Crystalline igneous rocks

Igneous rocks are classified based on composition and texture.
The scheme for classifying the principal types of crystalline igneous rocks is quite simple. The different compositional classes are distinguished on the basis of silica content ultramafic, mafic, intermediate, or felsic whereas the different textural classes are distinguished according to whether the grains are coarse or fine.  The chart in figure above gives the texture and composition of the most commonly used crystalline igneous rock names. As a rough guide, the colour of an igneous rock reflects its composition: mafic rocks tend to be black or dark Gray, intermediate rocks tend to be lighter Gray or greenish Gray, and felsic rocks tend to be light tan to pink or maroon. Note that rhyolite and granite have the same chemical composition but differ in grain size. Which of these two rocks develops from a melt of felsic composition depends on the cooling rate. A felsic lava that solidifies quickly at the Earth’s surface or in a thin dike or sill turns into fine-grained rhyolite; but the same magma, if solidifying slowly at depth in a pluton, turns into coarse-grained granite. A similar situation holds for mafic lavas a mafic lava that cools quickly in a lava flow forms basalt, but a mafic magma that cools slowly forms gabbro. 

Glassy igneous rocks

Glassy texture develops more commonly in felsic igneous rocks because the high concentration of silica inhibits the easy growth of crystals. But basaltic and intermediate lavas can form glass if they cool rapidly enough. In some cases, a rapidly cooling lava freezes while it still contains a high concentration of gas bubbles these bubbles remain as open holes known as vesicles. Geologists distinguish among several different kinds of glassy rocks.
Pumice, a vesicle-filled volcanic rock, is so light that paper can hold it up. The vesicles it contains tend to be small.
  • Obsidian is a mass of solid, felsic glass. It tends to be black or brown (b in first figure). Because it breaks conchoidally, sharp-edged pieces split off its surface when you hit a sample with a hammer. Pre- industrial people worldwide used such pieces for arrowheads, scrapers, and knife blades. 
  • Pumice is a felsic volcanic rock that contains  abundant vesicles, giving it the appearance of a sponge. Pumice forms by the quick cooling of frothy lava that  resembles the head of foam in a glass of beer. In some cases, pumice contains so many air-filled pores that it can actually float on water, like styrofoam (figure above). 
  • Scoria is a mafic volcanic rock that contains abundant vesicles (more than about 30%). Generally, the bubbles in scoria are bigger than those in pumice, and the rock, overall, looks darker.

Pyroclastic igneous rocks  

When volcanoes erupt explosively, they spew out fragments of lava. Geologists refer to all such fragments as pyroclasts. Accumulations of fragmental volcanic debris are called pyroclastic deposits, and when the material in these deposits consolidates into a solid mass, due either to welding together of still-hot clasts or to cementation by minerals precipitating from water passing through, it becomes a pyroclastic rock. Geologists distinguish among several types of pyroclastic rocks based on grain size. Let’s consider two examples. 
  • Tuff is a fine-grained pyroclastic igneous rock composed of volcanic ash. It may contain fragments of pumice. 
  • Volcanic breccia consists of larger fragments of volcanic debris that either fall through the air and accumulate, or form when a lava flow breaks into pieces.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)