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Compositional distribution of erupted lavas is controlled by phase relations of primitive basalts

High pressure experiments demonstrate that variations in water content and depth of differentiation can produce a wide variety of erupted lavas from a single primitive source

Lava suites erupted from individual volcanic centres commonly exhibit a compositional ‘gap’ between basaltic and rhyolitic compositions, where the volume of intermediate eruptives is less than mafic and acidic equivalents.  A study by Melekhova and co-workers explores the distribution of lava compositions erupted from crustal volcanoes, focusing on a case study from the volcanic island of St Vincent in the Lesser Antilles. The crystallisation of cooling basaltic magmas was simulated using high pressure experiments, with synthetic run products analysed using a variety of microanalytical techniques.  The authors discovered that variation in melt fraction (the amount of molten rock remaining in the model system) and melt composition with temperature is controlled by the composition of minerals crystallising from the parent magma. For example, a rapid decrease in melt fraction, and increase in melt SiO2, occurs when the minerals and melt have similar (eutectic-like) compositions, which is the case when little water is present.

Summit of Soufriere St Vincent, Lesser Antilles,

View of lava dome in the summit caldera of Soufriere St Vincent, Lesser Antilles. Credit: Richard Arculus

The experimentally determined phase relations were incorporated into a numerical model, which allowed enabled the team to explore the evolution of a magmatic system over time by simulating the incremental emplacement of small batches of magma beneath a volcano. When model results were compared with natural rocks from St Vincent, the best fit is produced by theoretical runs with water contents mirroring data from recently analysed melt inclusions, and heat content correlating well with the age of the island (~0.4 – 2.0 Ma). Furthermore, calculations show that the observed bimodality in erupted compositions is a natural consequence of the ‘damp’ nature of sub-arc melts.

Although Melekhova et al.’s approach focused on an oceanic island arc volcano, it offers insights into other types of volcanic system; because magmas produced from a given basalt exhibit tractable changes in composition with time, they can be compared to lavas from any igneous terrains where there are good temporal constraints on changing magma (or melt inclusion) chemistry.

Melekhova, E, Annen, CJ & Blundy, JD (2013) ‘Compositional gaps in igneous rock suites controlled by magma system heat and water content’ Nature Geoscience, vol 6, pp. 385-390.



Plutonic xenoliths from St Vincent, Lesser Antilles, act as ‘windows into the deep’

Coarse-grained igneous rocks, sourced directly from a sub-volcanic magma chamber, provide glimpses into the prevailing conditions beneath an active volcano.

Tollan and co-workers used several different techniques to analyse the major and isotopic composition of mineral phases in cumulates sourced from the active volcanic island of St Vincent in the Lesser Antilles. Cumulates are igneous rocks comprise the first fractionating minerals that form from a crystallising melt. The combinations of minerals and their composition are modulated by the conditions imposed upon the magma when it is cooling, and thus each rock represents a unique ‘snapshots’ of magmatic evolution.

The study revealed that the rounded cumulate nodules are distinctively rich in anorthitic plagioclase and pargasitic hornblende, accompanied by fresh olivine and pyroxenes. The composition of the minerals indicates the cumulates formed at ~970 – 1150°C at 5-6 km below the Earth’s surface.

Cumulate xenoliths on the island of Bequia, Lesser Antilles.

Cumulate xenoliths on the island of Bequia, Lesser Antilles.

The paper concludes that all the cumulates collected from St Vincent formed from relatively evolved melts rich in calcium, aluminium and water. These types of magmas are produced from early crystallisation of mafic phases (olivine, clinopyroxene and Cr-rich spinel) before their low density facilitates ascent through the crust, where they stall and deposit the observed cumulus minerals in shallow magma chambers. Evidence from oxygen isotopes suggests the cumulates have a residence time of ~50,000 years before being entrained and fragmented by newly injected magmas, and transported to the surface during explosive volcanic eruptions.

Full reference: Tollan, PME, Bindeman, I & Blundy, JD (2012) ‘Oxygen and hydrogen isotope compositions of plutonic xenoliths from St. Vincent, Lesser Antilles Island Arc.’ Contributions to Minerology and Petrology, no. 163, pp. 189-208.