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Element maps: A leap forward for microtextural analysis

Quantitative mapping of elements in a lava sample provides insights into the kinetics of explosively-erupting magmatic systems

As magmas ascend from depth towards the surface they undergo decompression and cooling, the former being responsible for the release of dissolved volatiles in the form of volcanic gases; all three factors induce crystals to form. The speed at which magma travels towards the surface affects the rate of crystallisation, and as such, the study of the textures of explosively erupted lavas can reveal quantitative information about magmatic ascent rates and crystallisation history.

Muir and co-workers from the University of Bristol present a novel method of analysing lava microtextures. They harness a powerful new technique (EDS element mapping) whereby a rock sample is bombarded with electrons. Sample interaction with electrons produces a variety of emissions, some of which are X-rays with wavelengths characteristic to the elemental composition of the target. The combination of different elements translates into an energy spectrum which is analysed to determine the abundance of specific elements. This is repeated many thousands of times over a small area to build up a ‘map’ for each element, where the intensity of colour is proportional to the elemental concentration. Individual mineral phases can be identified and isolated; calculations are then performed to obtain the relative proportions, sizes and distributions of glass, minerals and bubbles.

SH154_AlK copy

Aluminium element map of a lava sample erupted from the Mt St Helens Dome on 29th Mar 1984. The image, taken with an electron microscope, reveals zoning in plagioclase crystals.

The technique of EDS element mapping is applied to lavas from Mt St Helens erupted bewteen 1980 – 1986. The observed trends in microtextures are similar to those previously published, with groundmass crystallinity displaying a sharp increase after the catastrophic eruption in the summer of 1980, before increasing more gradually during the next dome-building phase of activity.

EDS element mapping presents significant advantages over the previous method of manually extracting data from greyscale backscattered electron images through faster data processing, reduction in operator time and accurate identification of all textural components. The authors also highlight the potential for coupling of this technique with developing technologies, such as field emission gun (FEG) sources, which would radically reduce acquisition time and enable better spatial resolution at small crystal sizes.

Muir, DD, Blundy, JD & Rust, AC 2012, ‘Multiphase petrography of volcanic rocks using element maps: a method applied to Mount St. Helens, 1980–2005′ Bulletin of Volcanology.


Quantitative textural analyses including crystal size distributions (CSDs) provide insights into crystallisation kinetics of magmatic systems. Investigations of volcanic crystal textures often rely on greyscale variations on backscattered electron images to identify crystal phases, which must then be thresholded and/or traced manually, a laborious task, and investigations are typically restricted to a single crystal phase. A method is presented that uses energy-dispersive X-ray element maps to generate textural data. Each pixel is identified as a crystal phase, glass or vesicle according to relative chemical composition enabling concurrent acquisition of multiphase CSD, crystallinity and mineral mode data. Data processing is less time intensive for the operator but considerable instrument time is required to generate element maps. The method is applied to 17 dacite samples from the 1980–1986 and 3 from the 2004–2005 eruptive periods of Mount St. Helens volcano (USA) to provide quantitative insights into multiphase textural evolution. All of the CSDs are curved and concave-up in the standard CSD plot with curvature increasing with plagioclase content. To facilitate comparisons with previous studies, CSDs for microlites (<50 μm length crystals) are approximated as straight lines. The line intercepts and slopes provide information on n 0 (nucleation density) and characteristic length or (the product of growth rate (G) and residence time (τ)), respectively. These parameters, as well as the total groundmass crystallinity, show distinct differences between explosive deposits from summer 1980 and post-summer 1980 domes. Post-summer 1980 microlite n 0 values are mostly at the lower end of the range of those measured for summer 1980 samples. Total groundmass crystallinities during summer 1980 are between 10 and 30 vol.%, whereas post-summer 1980 crystallinity increases to between 39 and 51 vol.%. The range of n 0 values is similar to those previously published for Mount St. Helens but is consistently higher. of a May 1985 sample analysed in this study is approximately 2 μm higher compared with previously published data for the same sample when processed using similar methodologies. Groundmass crystallinity data show similar trends to those previously published for the 1980 to 1986 eruption, increasing sharply after summer 1980 then increasing more gradually during the dome-building phase of the eruption. The effects of varying L, the apparent crystal size, and crystal aspect ratio on resultant CSDs are also investigated. Whilst relative temporal variations in CSDs for a given dataset can be investigated, absolute values from different studies cannot be compared unless methods of data acquisition and processing are exactly the same.


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