Molossian Institute of Volcanology

Definitions are adapted from the U.S. Geological Survey Photo Glossary of Volcanic Terms

`A`a Flow
`A`a (pronounced "ah-ah") is a Hawaiian term for lava flows that have a rough rubbly surface composed of broken lava blocks called clinkers. The incredibly spiny surface of a solidified `a`a flow makes walking very difficult and slow. The clinkery surface actually covers a massive dense core, which is the most active part of the flow. As pasty lava in the core travels downslope, the clinkers are carried along at the surface. At the leading edge of an `a`a flow, however, these cooled fragments tumble down the steep front and are buried by the advancing flow. This produces a layer of lava fragments both at the bottom and top of an `a`a flow.

Andesite is a gray to black volcanic rock with between about 52 and 63 weight percent silica (SiO2). Andesites contain crystals composed primarily of plagioclase feldspar and one or more of the minerals pyroxene (clinopyroxene and orthopyroxene) and lesser amounts of hornblende. At the lower end of the silica range, andesite lava may also contain olivine. Andesite magma commonly erupts from stratovolcanoes as thick lava flows, some reaching several km in length. Andesite magma can also generate strong explosive eruptions to form pyroclastic flows and surges and enormous eruption columns. Andesites erupt at temperatures between 900 and 1100 C.

Volcanic Ash
Volcanic ash consists of rock, mineral, and volcanic glass fragments smaller than 2 mm (0.1 inch) in diameter, which is slightly larger than the size of a pinhead. Volcanic ash is not the same as the soft fluffy ash that results from burning wood, leaves, or paper. It is hard, does not dissolve in water, and can be extremely small--ash particles less than 0.025 mm (1/1,000th of an inch) in diameter are common. Ash is extremely abrasive, similar to finely crushed window glass, mildly corrosive, and electrically conductive, especially when wet.

Volcanic ash is created during explosive eruptions by the shattering of solid rocks and violent separation of magma (molten rock) into tiny pieces. Explosive eruptions are generated when ground water is heated by magma and abruptly converted to steam and also when magma reaches the surface so that volcanic gases dissolved in the molten rock expand and escape (explode) into the air extremely rapidly. After being blasted into the air by expanding steam and other volcanic gases, the hot ash and gas rise quickly to form a towering eruption column directly above the volcano.

Basalt is a hard, black volcanic rock with less than about 52 weight percent silica (SiO2). Because of basalt's low silica content, it has a low viscosity (resistance to flow). Therefore, basaltic lava can flow quickly and easily move >20 km from a vent. The low viscosity typically allows volcanic gases to escape without generating enormous eruption columns. Basaltic lava fountains and fissure eruptions, however, still form explosive fountains hundreds of meters tall. Common minerals in basalt include olivine, pyroxene, and plagioclase. Basalt is erupted at temperatures between 1100 to 1250 C.

A volcanic block is a solid rock fragment greater than 64 mm in diameter that was ejected from a volcano during an explosive eruption. Blocks commonly consist of solidified pieces of old lava flows that were part of a volcano's cone.

Volcanic bombs are lava fragments that were ejected while viscous (partially molten) and larger than 64 mm in diameter. Many acquire rounded aerodynamic shapes during their travel through the air. Volcanic bombs include breadcrust bombs, ribbon bombs, spindle bombs (with twisted ends), spheroidal bombs, and "cow-dung" bombs.

A caldera is a large, usually circular depression at the summit of a volcano formed when magma is withdrawn or erupted from a shallow underground magma reservoir. The removal of large volumes of magma may result in loss of structural support for the overlying rock, thereby leading to collapse of the ground and formation of a large depression. Calderas are different from craters, which are smaller, circular depressions created primarily by explosive excavation of rock during eruptions.

Cinder Cone
A cinder cone is a steep, conical hill of volcanic fragments that accumulate around and downwind from a vent. The rock fragments, often called cinders or scoria, are glassy and contain numerous gas bubbles "frozen" into place as magma exploded into the air and then cooled quickly. Cinder cones range in size from tens to hundreds of meters tall.

Dacite lava is most often light gray, but can be dark gray to black. Dacite lava consists of about 63 to 68 percent silica (SiO2). Common minerals include plagioclase feldspar, pyroxene, and amphibole. Dacite generally erupts at temperatures between 800 and 1000C. It is one of the most common rock types associated with enormous Plinian-style eruptions. When relatively gas-poor dacite erupts onto a volcano's surface, it typically forms thick rounded lava flow in the shape of a dome.

Debris Avalanche
Debris avalanches are moving masses of rock, soil and snow that occur when the flank of a mountain or volcano collapses and slides downslope. As the moving debris rushes down a volcano and into river valleys, it incorporates water, snow, trees, bridges, buildings, and anything else in the way. Debris avalanches may travel several kilometers before coming to rest, or they may transform into more water-rich lahars, which travel many tens of kilometers downstream.

Dikes are tabular or sheet-like bodies of magma that cut through and across the layering of adjacent rocks. They form when magma rises into an existing fracture, or creates a new crack by forcing its way through existing rock, and then solidifies. Hundreds of dikes can invade the cone and inner core of a volcano, sometimes preferentially along zones of structural weakness.

Effusive Eruption
An eruption dominated by the outpouring of lava onto the ground is often referred to as an effusive eruption (as opposed to the violent fragmentation of magma by explosive eruptions). Lava flows generated by effusive eruptions vary in shape, thickness, length, and width depending on the type of lava erupted, discharge, slope of the ground over which the lava travels, and duration of eruption. For example, basalt lava may become `a`a or pahohoe, and flow in deep narrow channels or in thin wide sheets. Andesite lava typically forms thick stubby flows, and dacite lava often forms steep-sided mounds called lava domes.

Eruption Cloud
A cloud of tephra and gases that forms downwind of an erupting volcano is called an eruption cloud. The vertical pillar of tephra and gases rising directly above a vent is an eruption column. Eruption clouds are often dark colored--brown to gray--but they can also be white, very similar to weather clouds. Eruption clouds may drift for thousands of kilometers downwind and often become increasingly spread out over a larger area with increasing distance from an erupting vent (note fan-shaped eruption cloud in photographs at left). Large eruption clouds can encircle the Earth within days.

Eruption cloud is often used interchangeably with plume or ash cloud.

Faults are fractures or fracture zones in the Earth's crust along which one side moves with respect to the other. A fault scarp is a cliff or steep slope that sometimes forms along the fault at the surface. There are many types of faults (for example, strike-slip, normal, reverse, and thrust faults) ranging in size from a few tens of meters to hundreds of kilometers in dimension.

In geology, a fissure is a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation; fissures are often filled with mineral-bearing materials. On volcanoes, a fissure is an elongate fracture or crack at the surface from which lava erupts. Fissure eruptions typically dwindle to a central vent after a period of hours or days. Occasionally, lava will flow back into the ground by pouring into a crack or an open eruptive fissure, a process called drainback; sometimes lava will flow back into the same fissure from which it erupted.

Fumaroles are vents from which volcanic gas escapes into the atmosphere. Fumaroles may occur along tiny cracks or long fissures, in chaotic clusters or fields, and on the surfaces of lava flows and thick deposits of pyroclastic flows. They may persist for decades or centuries if they are above a persistent heat source or disappear within weeks to months if they occur atop a fresh volcanic deposit that quickly cools.

Volcanic Gas
Magma contains dissolved gases that are released into the atmosphere during eruptions. Gases are also released from magma that either remains below ground (for example, as an intrusion) or rises toward the surface. In such cases, gases may escape continuously into the atmosphere from the soil, volcanic vents, fumaroles, and hydrothermal systems. The most common gas released by magma is steam (H2O), followed by CO2 (carbon dioxide), SO2 (sulfur dioxide), (HCl) hydrogen chloride and other compounds.

Most geysers are hot springs that episodically erupt fountains of scalding water and steam. Such eruptions occur as a consequence of groundwater being heated to its boiling temperature in a confined space (for example, a fracture or conduit). A slight decrease in pressure or an increase in temperature will cause some of the water to boil. The resulting steam forces overlying water up through the conduit and onto the ground. This loss of water further reduces pressure within the conduit system, and most of the remaining water suddenly converts to steam and erupts at the surface.

Lahar is an Indonesian word for a rapidly flowing mixture of rock debris and water that originates on the slopes of a volcano. Lahars are also referred to as volcanic mudflows or debris flows. They form in a variety of ways, chiefly by the rapid melting of snow and ice by pyroclastic flows, intense rainfall on loose volcanic rock deposits, breakout of a lake dammed by volcanic deposits, and as a consequence of debris avalanches.

Lava is the word for magma (molten rock) when it erupts onto the Earth's surface. Geologists also use the word to describe the solidified deposits of lava flows and fragments hurled into the air by explosive eruptions (for example, lava bombs or blocks). Lava is from the Italian word for stream, which is derived from the verb lavare--to wash.

Lava Flow
Lava flows are masses of molten rock that pour onto the Earth's surface during an effusive eruption. Both moving lava and the resulting solidified deposit are referred to as lava flows. Because of the wide range in (1) viscosity of the different lava types (basalt, andesite, dacite, and rhyolite); (2) lava discharge during eruptions; and (3) characteristics of the erupting vent and topography over which lava travels, lava flows come in a great variety of shapes and sizes.

Lava Fountain
A jet of lava sprayed into the air by the rapid formation and expansion of gas bubbles in the molten rock is called a lava fountain. Lava fountains typically range from about 10 to 100 m in height, but occasionally reach more than 500 m. Lava fountains erupt from isolated vents, along fissures, within active lava lakes, and from a lava tube when water gains access to the tube in a confined space.

Lava Lake
Lava lakes are large volumes of molten lava, usually basaltic, contained in a vent, crater, or broad depression. Scientists use the term to describe both lava lakes that are molten and those that are partly or completely solidified. Lava lakes can form (1) from one or more vents in a crater that erupts enough lava to partially fill the crater; (2) when lava pours into a crater or broad depression and partially fills the crater; and (3) atop a new vent that erupts lava continuously for a period of several weeks or more and slowly builds a crater higher and higher above the surrounding ground.

Lava Tube
Lava tubes are natural conduits through which lava travels beneath the surface of a lava flow. Tubes form by the crusting over of lava channels and pahoehoe flows. A broad lava-flow field often consists of a main lava tube and a series of smaller tubes that supply lava to the front of one or more separate flows. When the supply of lava stops at the end of an eruption or lava is diverted elsewhere, lava in the tube system drains downslope and leaves partially empty conduits beneath the ground. Such drained tubes commonly exhibit "high-lava" marks on their walls, generally flat floors, and many lava stalactites that hang from the roof. Lava can also erode downward, deepening the tube and leaving empty space above the flowing lava.

Magma is molten or partially molten rock beneath the Earth's surface. When magma erupts onto the surface, it is called lava. Magma typically consists of (1) a liquid portion (often referred to as the melt); (2) a solid portion made of minerals that crystallized directly from the melt; (3) solid rocks incorporated into the magma from along the conduit or reservoir, called xenoliths or inclusions; and (4) dissolved gases.

Mud Volcano
A mud volcano is a small volcano-shaped cone of mud and clay, usually less than 1-2 m tall. These small mud volcanoes are built by a mixture of hot water and fine sediment (mud and clay) that either (1) pours gently from a vent in the ground like a fluid lava flow; or (2) is ejected into the air like a lava fountain by escaping volcanic gas and boiling water. The fine mud and clay typically originates from solid rock--volcanic gases and heat escaping from magma deep below turn groundwater into a hot acidic mixture that chemically changes the rock into mud- and clay-sized fragments.

Obsidian is dense volcanic glass, usually rhyolite in composition and typically black in color. Compared with window glass, obsidian is rich in iron and magnesium; tiny (<.005 mm) crystals of iron oxide within the glass cause its dark color.

Obsidian is often formed in rhyolite lava flows where the lava cools so fast that crystals do not have time to grow. Glass, unlike crystals, has no regular structure and therefore fractures in smooth conchoidal (curved) shapes. The intersections of these fractures can form edges sharper than the finest steel blades. For this reason, obsidian was used by many native cultures to make arrowheads and blades.

Pahoehoe is a Hawaiian term for basaltic lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. A pahoehoe flow typically advances as a series of small lobes and toes that continually break out from a cooled crust. The surface texture of pahoehoe flows varies widely, displaying all kinds of bizarre shapes often referred to as lava sculpture.

Phreatic Eruption
Phreatic eruptions are steam-driven explosions that occur when water beneath the ground or on the surface is heated by magma, lava, hot rocks, or new volcanic deposits (for example, tephra and pyroclastic-flow deposits). The intense heat of such material (as high as 1,170 C for basaltic lava) may cause water to boil and flash to steam, thereby generating an explosion of steam, water, ash, blocks, and bombs.

Plinian Eruption
Plinian eruptions are large explosive events that form enormous dark columns of tephra and gas high into the stratosphere (>11 km). Such eruptions are named for Pliny the Younger, who carefully described the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. This eruption generated a huge column of tephra into the sky, pyroclastic flows and surges, and extensive ash fall. Many thousands of people evacuated areas around the volcano, but about 2,000 were killed, including Pliny the Older.

Pit Crater
Pit craters are circular-shaped craters formed by the sinking or collapse of the ground. Fissures may erupt from the walls or base of a pit crater, but pit craters are not constructional features built by eruptions of lava or tephra. Pit craters may also partially fill with lava to form a lava lake. They are common along rift zones of shield volcanoes; for example, Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes in Hawai`i. No one has observed the formation of a large pit crater, but they are thought to form as a consequence of the removal of support by withdrawal of underlying magma.

Pumice is a light, porous volcanic rock that forms during explosive eruptions. It resembles a sponge because it consists of a network of gas bubbles frozen amidst fragile volcanic glass and minerals. All types of magma (basalt, andesite, dacite, and rhyolite) will form pumice.

Pumice is similar to the liquid foam generated when a bottle of pressurized soda is opened--the opening depressurizes the soda and enables dissolved carbon dioxide gas to escape or erupt through the opening. During an explosive eruption, volcanic gases dissolved in the liquid portion of magma also expand rapidly to create a foam or froth; in the case of pumice, the liquid part of the froth quickly solidifies to glass around the glass bubbles.

Pyroclastic Flow
A pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. The temperature within a pyroclastic flow may be greater than 500 C, sufficient to burn and carbonize wood. Once deposited, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments may deform (flatten) and weld together because of the intense heat and the weight of the overlying material.

Rhyolite is a light-colored rock with silica (SiO2) content greater than about 68 weight percent. Sodium and potassium oxides both can reach about 5 weight percent. Common mineral types include quartz, feldspar and biotite and are often found in a glassy matrix. Rhyolite is erupted at temperatures of 700 to 850 C.

Rift Zone
A rift zone is an elongate system of crustal fractures associated with an area that has undergone extension (ground has spread apart). On the great shield volcanoes in Hawai`i, a rift zone consists of many different features associated with the rise and eruption of magma from narrow dikes, including eruptive fissures, cinder and spatter cones, spatter ramparts, pit craters, lava flows, ground cracks, and normal faults.

Scoria is a vesicular (bubbly) glassy lava rock of basaltic to andesitic composition ejected from a vent during explosive eruption. The bubbly nature of scoria is due to the escape of volcanic gases during eruption. Scoria is typically dark gray to black in color, mostly due to its high iron content. The surface of some scoria may have a blue iridescent color; oxidation may lead to a deep reddish-brown color.

Shield Volcano
Volcanoes with broad, gentle slopes and built by the eruption of fluid basalt lava are called shield volcanoes. Basalt lava tends to build enormous, low-angle cones because it flows across the ground easily and can form lava tubes that enable lava to flow tens of kilometers from an erupting vent with very little cooling. The largest volcanoes on Earth are shield volcanoes. The name comes from a perceived resemblance to the shape of a warrior's shield.

Spatter Rampart
Lava fountains that erupt from an elongate fissure will build broad embankments of spatter, called spatter ramparts, along both sides of the fissure. The spatter commonly sticks together, or agglutinates, when it lands and is buried by later spatter. In contrast to these low linear fortifications, spatter cones are more circular and cone shaped--the only real distinction between the two structures is their shape.

Spatter and Cinder Cone
Long-lived basaltic lava fountains that erupt spatter, scoria or cinder, and other tephra from a central vent typically build steep-sided cones called spatter-and-cinder cones. The greatest bulk of these cones consists of spatter, but during fountaining a lava flow usually pours down one side of the cone. Eruptions that build spatter and cinder cones are much longer in duration and much more varied in intensity than those that eject only spatter to build spatter cones and ramparts.

Steep, conical volcanoes built by the eruption of viscous lava flows, tephra, and pyroclastic flows, are called stratovolcanoes. Usually constructed over a period of tens to hundreds of thousands of years, stratovolcanoes may erupt a variety of magma types, including basalt, andesite, dacite, and rhyolite. All but basalt commonly generate highly explosive eruptions. A stratovolcano typically consists of many separate vents, some of which may have erupted cinder cones and domes on the volcano's flanks. A synonym is composite cone.

Strombolian Eruption
Strombolian eruptions are characterized by the intermittent explosion or fountaining of basaltic lava from a single vent or crater. Each episode is caused by the release of volcanic gases, and they typically occur every few minutes or so, sometimes rhythmically and sometimes irregularly. The lava fragments generally consist of partially molten volcanic bombs that become rounded as they fly through the air.

Tephra is a general term for fragments of volcanic rock and lava regardless of size that are blasted into the air by explosions or carried upward by hot gases in eruption columns or lava fountains. Tephra includes large dense blocks and bombs, and small light rock debris such as scoria, pumice, reticulite, and ash.

As tephra falls to the ground with increasing distance from a volcano, the average size of the individual rock particles becomes smaller and thickness of the resulting deposit becomes thinner. Small tephra stays aloft in the eruption cloud for longer periods of time, which allows wind to blow tiny particles farther from an erupting volcano.

Vents are openings in the Earth's crust from which molten rock and volcanic gases escape onto the ground or into the atmosphere. Vents may consist of a single circular-shaped structure, a large elongate fissure and fracture, or a tiny ground crack. The release of volcanic gases and the eruption of molten rock will result in an assortment of constructional features ranging from enormous shield volcanoes and calderas to fumaroles and small rootless hornitos.

Volcanic Dome
Volcanic domes are rounded, steep-sided mounds built by very viscous magma, usually either dacite or rhyolite. Such magmas are typically too viscous (resistant to flow) to move far from the vent before cooling and crystallizing. Domes may consist of one or more individual lava flows. Volcanic domes are also referred to as lava domes.

A volcano is a vent at the Earth's surface through which magma (molten rock) and associated gases erupt, and also the cone built by effusive and explosive eruptions.

Vulcanian Eruption
A vulcanian eruption is a type of explosive eruption that ejects new lava fragments that do not take on a rounded shape during their flight through the air. This may be because the lava is too viscous or already solidified. These moderate-sized explosive eruptions commonly eject a large proportion of volcanic ash and also breadcrust bombs and blocks. Andesitic and dacitic magmas are most often associated with vulcanian eruptions, because their high viscosity (resistance to flow) makes it difficult for the dissolved volcanic gases to escape except under extreme pressure, which leads to explosive behavior.

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