National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2004

Quantitative contraints on the growth of submarine lava pillars from a monitoring instrument that was caught in a lava flow

Chadwick, W.W.

J. Geophys. Res., 108(B11), 2534, doi: 10.1029/2003JB002422 (2003)

Lava pillars are hollow, vertical chimneys of solid basaltic lava that are common features within the collapsed interiors of submarine sheet flows on intermediate and fast spreading mid-ocean ridges. They are morphologically similar to lava trees that form on land when lava overruns forested areas, but the sides of lava pillars are covered with distinctive, evenly spaced, thin, horizontal lava crusts, referred to hereafter as "lava shelves." Lava stalactites up to 5 cm long on the undersides of these shelves are evidence that cavities filled with a hot vapor phase existed temporarily beneath each crust. During the submarine eruption of Axial Volcano in 1998 on the Juan de Fuca Ridge a monitoring instrument, called VSM2, became embedded in the upper crust of a lava flow that produced 3- to 5-m-high lava pillars. A pressure sensor in the instrument showed that the 1998 lobate sheet flow inflated 3.5 m and then drained out again in only 2.5 hours. These data provide the first quantitative constraints on the timescale of lava pillar formation and the rates of submarine lava flow inflation and drainback. They also allow comparisons to lava flow inflation rates observed on land, to theoretical models of crust formation on submarine lava, and to previous models of pillar formation. A new model is presented for the rhythmic formation of alternating lava crusts and vapor cavities to explain how stacks of lava shelves are formed on the sides of lava pillars during continuous lava drainback. Each vapor cavity is created between a stranded crust and the subsiding lava surface. A hot vapor phase forms within each cavity as seawater is syringed through tiny cracks in the stranded crust above. Eventually, the subsiding lava causes the crust above to fail, quenching the hot cavity and forming the next lava crust. During the 1998 eruption at Axial Volcano, this process repeated itself about every 2 min during the 81-min-long drainback phase of the eruption, based on the thickness and spacing of the lava shelves. The VSM2 data show that lava pillars are formed during short-lived eruptions in which inflation and drainback follow each other in rapid succession and that pillars record physical evidence that can be used to interpret the dynamics of seafloor eruptions.

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