Magma mush eruptibility: the lifetime of mobile magma

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Volcanism - the generation and eruption of molten rock from within the earth's interior - is one of the most visible manifestations of plate tectonics. Growth of the earth's crust occurs either when magma is stored and solidified within the crust, or is erupted at the earth's surface. Eruptive activity at subduction zones can be explosive and highly disruptive, and represents an important natural hazard, with implications for life, health and financial stability when it occurs. One of the major challenges facing volcanologists is the accurate forecasting of this eruptive behaviour. Abundant evidence of past volcanic activity shows that large volumes of magma can be erupted in a single event. However, geophysical techniques used to image below the earth's surface fail to distinguish large volumes of melt (magmatic liquid) stored within the crust. Instead, melt may be stored as "crystal mush", i.e. an accumulation of volcanic crystals separated by only small amounts of melt that is hard to image geophysically. However, a crystal mush with low melt content behaves like a solid and cannot be erupted. Researchers therefore suggest that the mush contains 'eruptible' lenses that have higher melt content, yet remain thin enough to be unresolved by geophysical techniques. If so, then wholesale spatial reorganisation of crystals and liquid in the whole mushy region could change its overall physical behaviour, such that it quickly becomes eruptible. In contrast, other scholars predict a prolonged existence of more liquid-rich (potentially eruptible) mush bodies within the crust. In this case, the lack of currently observed geophysical signals for large, melt-rich magma bodies may simply result from the ephemeral nature of magmatism. To make progress, more information about the longevity of eruptible mushy regions is essential. This proposal will develop a new method to determine the lifetime of melt-rich regions, enabling us to resolve this current conflict.

Time 'chronology' information about volcanic systems is commonly recorded in the mineral zircon, which contains radioactive elements that are sensitive to time. Zircon chronology shows that crystal mushes can persist over long time periods (e.g. 100s kyr), but these measurements hold significant uncertainties. The lifetime of the more eruptible, melt-rich 'mobile magma' is much harder to investigate, because it occurs at higher temperatures where zircon may not be stable. However, this information is a critical link between geophysical observations, which record a snapshot of the state of the earth's crust, and volcanology, which records information about magmatic processes over very long times.

This project will develop a new method to determine the lifetime of mobile magma crystallisation directly by analysing crystals that grow from melt at high temperatures. Specifically, we will relate the aspect ratio (length/ width) of the silicate mineral plagioclase, which grows from almost all subduction zone magmas, to the time available for crystallisation. Our preliminary work suggests a strong relationship between aspect ratio and time for water-rich, silica-rich magmas that erupt at subduction zones. Using high-temperature experiments, analysis of well-dated plagioclase crystals, and mathematical approaches, the team will derive a universal relationship that can be applied to all magmatic environments. We will apply the method to intermediate subduction zone volcanic systems that have recent geophysical information, in order to re-evaluate the architecture of the subterranean magma plumbing systems. Finally, we will integrate our crystal-scale observations with existing geophysical information and chronology datasets, to bring new insights into the distribution of melt and our ability to see it geophysically. This will lead to novel constraints on the identification, recognition and definition of mushy plumbing systems in future.

Planned Impact

The primary non-academic beneficiaries of this research programme are volcano observatories; other authorities involved with volcano monitoring, hazard management or civil defence; university and school students and their teachers; the early career researcher working on the programme; and the general public.

The work will address a major problem in volcanology - how to integrate conflicting information, from geophysics, numerical modelling and petrology, about the nature and structure of volcanic plumbing systems. An accurate understanding of magma storage and migration pathways beneath any volcano is essential for successful interpretation of volcano monitoring data so agencies involved in monitoring and hazard management/ civil defence will benefit from improvements in baseline understanding of magmatic systems arising from the project. This information will be most beneficial for our target case study areas (Mount St Helens and Soufriere Hills volcanoes) but will be applicable to other similar systems worldwide.

University students will be able to get involved in active an research programme, with associated training in media or research skills; and will benefit from development of curriculum activities at undergraduate level. The named researcher co-investigator will benefit from multi-disciplinary technical training and skills development and career preparation.

We will develop a local primary schools microscopy outreach programme, including follow-up teaching resources, exposing students to basic scientific microscopes and the beauty of natural materials as part of the KS2 curriculum. The wider public will also have the opportunity to interact with active research through a more general outreach programme including science fairs and festivals. Through collaboration with a local artist we will bring together the aesthetics and science of the microscopic natural world in a series of new artworks that will be displayed at local centres of interest.


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Title ShapeCalc 
Description An improved method/ program to convert from 2D to 3D shapes, essential for accurate processing of crystal size distributions 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Influencing volcano observatory research into the origins of the 2021 St Vincent eruption 
Title ShapeCalc 
Description Improved method/ program for conversion between 2D and 3D shapes, essential for accurate processing of crystal size distributions 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Currently in review but has been made available to other researchers as pre-print version. The new program has influenced volcano observatory research into the origins of the 2021 St Vincent eruption. 
Description Ian Patience exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Exchange visit with local artist collaborator including wide-ranging discussion meeting with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and private exhibition view including discussion of science-art interactions with general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description MVO advice St Vincent 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Engaged with staff at Montserrat Volcano Observatory, advising on best practice for analysis of crystal and bubble size distributions, to aid interpretation of processes leading up to the 2021 St Vincent eruption.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021