The Magic of Magma

Good Afternoon!

Magma is the molten source of many of the rocks at the Earth’s surface; the others come from meteorites or other terrestrial processes.  Here, we look at how magma is generated and how it affects volcanic eruptions.   This is a long one; you may want to dip into it as a reference rather than read it all in one go, but bear with me.

Fig 1: Holuhraun on 4 September 2014 by peterhartree.  Published under CC BY-SA 2.0. Note the fire fountains, effusive lava flows and gas emissions.

There are several different types of volcanic eruption, varying from effusive to explosive.  The type is determined by the magma composition- both its silica content and its volatile (gas) content.

How is magma generated?

From our earlier post, we know that the heat required to generate magma comes from nuclear reactions at the Earth’s core.  This heat makes its way to the surface via conduction, convection and radiation.  The surface rocks are cold enough to be solid.  However, we saw that the heat from the core drives plate tectonics; it is the variations in temperature and pressure caused by plate motion, combined with changes in rock composition, that create the conditions for rocks to melt and create magma.

Effusive Continental Rifts / Ocean Ridges

Effusive eruptions (think Hawaiian eruptions such as Kilauea) tend to occur at rifts or fissures, cracks in the Earth’s crust that let magma reach the surface relatively quickly and allow gases to escape gently.  Such fissures are common at constructive plate boundaries (continental rifts or mid ocean ridges), caused by plate separation.  Magma is generated in a process called decompression melting; as the plates move apart the overlying pressure is reduced, which in turn reduces the melting temperature of the mantle.  Because magma ascends relatively rapidly there is less time for it to mix with other magma or the crust.  This magma tends to be basic basalt. 

Magma ascent at ocean ridge
Fig 2:  Magma ascending at a Mid Ocean Ridge by the author after the many examples available.  Arrows denote plate motion.  Not to scale. © All rights reserved, 2020.

More Explosive Subduction Zones

Magma may also be generated at what is called subduction zones.  Subduction zones occur where plates meet: a denser oceanic lithosphere descends beneath either a less dense continental lithosphere or other oceanic lithosphere. These zones were discovered by two scientists independently researching earthquakes, Hugo Benioff and Kiyoo Wadati. Earthquake foci delineate the descending slab; this zone may be referred to as the Wadati-Benioff zone.   Magma is created from the descending slab by a process called hydration melting: as the slab descends water is squeezed out which mixes with the overlying asthenosphere, lowering its melting temperature.  Hydration melting occurs between 50 km to 200 km, with volcanoes accumulating at around 70 km above the descending slab.  

Magma mixes with the asthenosphere and the crust which increases its silica content. Partial melting of the mantle results in basalts (<52% silica); partial melting of the descending ocean crust provides andesites (52% to 65% silica); and, partial melting of the continental crust gives rhyolites (> 65% silica).  Increasing the silica content of the magma increases its viscosity and the explosivity of eruptions.

These plate boundaries are called destructive boundaries; it is believed that the descending plate is destroyed in the process. 

Fig 3:  Magma generation at a subduction zone by the author, after the many sources available.  Large arrow denotes plate motion; stars, the site of hydration melting; and, the smaller arrow, magma ascent.  The accretionary wedge is rock scraped off as the plates meet. Earthquake foci, not shown, would indicate the path of the descending plate. Not to scale. © All rights reserved, 2020.


There is another process where plates meet called obduction; one plate rides over the other.  It is mentioned because obduction revealed the origins of oceanic crust.  Ophiolites, the remnants of old oceanic crust, show that this crust is made up of peridotites from the mantle overlain by old magma chambers, sheet dyke complexes, pillow lavas and sediments.  The magma was sourced from partial melting of the peridotite.  Sheet dyke complexes are complexes of vertical magma intrusions where magma has filled gaps caused by extension from plate separation.  Pillow lavas occur when basalt is erupted underwater.

Magma Evolution

We know that not all magma is basic basalt: there are others, including andesite and rhyolite.  These are formed from basalt by a process called magma evolution.

Magma rises slowly under its natural buoyancy, being around 10% less dense than the surrounding rock.  It tends to accumulate in magma chambers / reservoirs at depths of around 5 km to 20 km below the volcano.  Magma evolves by one or more of the following:

  • Magma mixing: one batch of magma mixes with another in the magma reservoir;
  • Assimilation: the rising magma collects surrounding rock during its ascent;
  • Fractional crystallisation: as magma rises, it cools, which causes the components with higher melting points to crystallise out.

Evolution tends to increase the silicate content of the magma and increase its viscosity; the higher the viscosity, the slower magma moves.

The table below shows a comparison of rock and magma compositions for some its key elements.  The convention for magma composition is based on the oxide equivalents of the elements, presumably on the basis that oxygen does not occur on its own in rock. 

Fig 4:  Comparison of key elements in the composition of different magmas by the author after various sources.  © All rights reserved, 2020.

So how does magma get to the surface?

The short answer is plate tectonics. Distortions in the crust from plate motion either squeeze magma out via existing or new fractures, or provide a wide enough pathway for the magma to ascend.  This is why we see so many volcanoes around plate boundaries.

Eruption Style

Magma contains dissolved gases (e.g. water, carbon dioxide, sulphur, and halogens: chlorine and fluorine).  When the constraining pressure decreases, the gases are released from solution: e.g. carbon dioxide exsolves at depths of several kilometres and sulphur at around 1 km.   This is a process called degassing (think of carbon dioxide released from a fizzy drink when the cap is loosened.) These gases may be held in the magma as bubbles or it may escape via fractures in the crust to the surface.  Measuring gas emissions around volcanoes indicates whether or not new magma is close to the surface.  We have seen with Grímsvötn that Icelandic scientists have reported the presence of sulphur dioxide near the caldera rim, indicating that Grímsvötn may be heading for a new eruption.

Effusive eruptions tend to occur with the less viscous basaltic magmas from which gases can escape gently.  More explosive eruptions are caused when the gases are trapped in more viscous magma and accumulate either as foam or as bubbles; it is their rapid expansion causes an explosive eruption. If a degassing event is large enough, less viscous magmas may also produce explosive eruptions.

When gas bubbles coalesce and expand, large bubbles form which rise with the magma.  If the magma reaches the vent, the bubbles explode with the reduction in constraining pressure, throwing out chunks of lava and ash; some of the chunks can be large boulders.  If gas bubbles get trapped in the magma chamber, when the accumulated pressure is high enough, the gas is forced out as a jet strong enough to cause fire fountains from less viscous basaltic magmas or ash / shards from fractured more viscous magma.  Fire fountains are / were visible in some of Etna’s eruption, in the 2014 eruption at Holuhraun or in the 1783 eruption of Laki. Famous explosive eruptions include Pinatubo, 1991, Krakatau, 1883, and Vesuvius, 79AD,

Impact of ground water or ice

We have seen explosive eruptions from some of Iceland’s basaltic volcanoes.  Another source of volatiles is ground water (aquifers) or glaciers.  When magma gets close enough to these, the heat from the magma flashes the water to steam; the rapid expansion of the water / steam results in an explosive eruption.  If only old rock is involved, the eruption is referred to as phreatic; if new magma is involved, the eruption is referred to as phreatomagmatic.  Phreatic eruptions may be a vehicle to clear the vent / provide a pathway for new magma to reach the surface. Recent phreatic eruptions include White Island, 2019, Mount Ontake, 2014; both caused loss of life because of the unpredictable nature of this eruption type.

Future Topics

There is another important process for magma that we have not touched here: mantle plumes.  We will look at this later.

We will also look in more detail the various locations for volcanoes, including the earthquake foci plots that indicate activity (usually tectonic).  Our Icelandic posts show the influence of the Mid Atlantic Ridge; others will look at subduction zones.

We may get diverted / distracted on the way to look at current events of interest.  (Probably, no “may” about it 😉 ).

Thank you for staying with me,

The Armchair Volcanologist

1 July 2020

© Copyright remains with the author; all rights reserved, 2020

Sources and Further Reading

“Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Tsunamis”, David A. Rothery, “Teach Yourself”, 2010

“Volcanoes”, Peter Francis, Clive Oppenheimer, Oxford University Press, 2004

“Volcanoes Global Perspectives”, John P. Lockwood and Richard W. Hazlett, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

“Wadati-Benioff zone”, Wikipedia:

“Igneous rock”, Wikipedia:

“Magma”, Wikipedia: