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Ascent and eruption of basaltic magma on the Earth and Moon


  • Lionel Wilson,

  • James W. Head III


Geological and physical observations and constraints are applied to the development of a model of the ascent and emplacement of basaltic magma on the earth and moon. Mathematical models of the nature and motion of gas/liquid mixtures are developed and show that gas exsolution from terrestrial and lunar magmas commonly only occurs at shallow depths (less than 2 km); thus the ascent of bubble-free magma at depth can be treated separately from the complex motions caused by gas exsolution near the surface. Magma ascent is related to dike or conduit width; a lower limit to width is determined by the presence of a finite magma yield strength or by excessive magma cooling effects related to magma viscosity. For terrestrial basalts with negligible yield strengths and viscosities greater than 102 Pa s, widths in the range 0.2–0.6 m are needed to allow eruptions from between depths of 0.5–20 km. Fissure widths of about 4 m would be needed to account for the output rates estimated for the Columbia River flood basalt eruptions. As the magma nears the surface, bubble coalescence will tend to occur, leading to intermittent explosive strombolian-style activity. For commonly occurring lunar and terrestrial basalts the magma rise speed must be greater than 0.5–1 m/s if strombolian activity is to be avoided and relatively steady fire fountaining is to take place. Terrestrial fire fountain heights are dictated by the vertical velocity of the magma/gas dispersion emerging through the vent, increasing with increasing magma gas content and mass eruption rate, and decreasing with increasing magma viscosity. Terrestrial fire fountain heights up to 500 m imply the release of up to 0.4 wt % water from the magma, corresponding to initial water contents up to 0.6 wt %. The presence of extremely long lava flows and sinuous rules on the moon has often been cited as evidence for very high extrusion rates and thus a basic difference between terrestrial and lunar magmas and crustal environments. However, the differences between terrestrial and lunar magma rheologies and crustal environments do not lead to gross differences between the effusion rates expected on the two planetary bodies, for similar-sized conduits or fissures. Thus the presence of these features implies only that tectonic and other forces associated with the onset of some lunar eruptions were such as to allow wide fissures or conduits to form. The surface widths of elongate fissure vents need be no wider than 10 m to allow mass eruption rates up to 10 times larger than those proposed for terrestrial flood basalt eruptions; 25-m widths would allow rates 100 times larger. It therefore appears unlikely that source vents on the moon with widths greater than a few tens of meters represent the true size of the unmodified vent. The main volatile released from lunar magmas was probably carbon monoxide, released in amounts proportionally less than terrestrial magmas by more than an order of magnitude. However, decompression to the near-zero ambient lunar atmospheric pressure causes much greater energy release per unit mass and this, coupled with vertical and horizontal expansion of the gas, suggests a much more efficient use of the available gas on the moon than on the earth. Some amount of magma disruption must always have taken place in lunar eruptions unless the gas content was truly zero or the magma possessed an appreciable yield strength. Pyroclastic deposits, such as the extensive lunar dark mantling material, could be produced from a single source vent and extend to diameters of up to 200 km. Such deposits could result either from steady eruptions at high effusion rates (with less than 1% of the magma disrupted into submillimeter droplets) or low effusion rate eruptions in which strombolian activity occurred. The wide dispersal of pyroclastic debris is a result of small particles being locked into the expanding gas cloud. Finally, we consider the details of basaltic eruption processes on the moon and predict the nature and geometry of several types of volcanic landforms (flows, pyroclastic blankets and cones, cinder and spatter ridges, etc.) that should result from specific eruption conditions.

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