Pillow lavas are lavas that contain characteristic pillow-shaped structures that are attributed to the extrusion of the lava under water, or subaqueous extrusion. Pillow lavas in volcanic rock are characterized by thick sequences of discontinuous pillow-shaped masses, commonly up to one metre in diameter. They form the upper part of 'Layer 2' of normal oceanic crust.
Pillow lavas are commonly of basaltic composition, although pillows formed of komatiite, picrite, boninite, basaltic andesite, andesite, dacite or even rhyolite are known. In general the more intermediate the composition, the larger the pillows, due to the increase in viscosity of the erupting lava.
They occur wherever mafic to intermediate lavas are extruded under water, such as along marine hotspot volcano chains and the constructive plate boundaries of mid-ocean ridges. As new oceanic crust is formed, thick sequences of pillow lavas are erupted at the spreading center fed by dykes from the underlying magma chamber. Pillow lavas and the related sheeted dyke complexes form part of a classic ophiolite sequence when a segment of oceanic crust is obducted onto continental crust.
The presence of pillow lavas in the oldest preserved volcanic sequences on the planet, the Isua and Barberton greenstone belts, confirms the presence of large bodies of water on the Earth's surface early in the Archean. Pillow lavas are used generally to confirm subaqueous volcanism in metamorphic belts.
They are created when magma reaches the surface but, as there is a large difference in temperature between the lava and the water, the surface of the emergent tongue cools very quickly, forming a skin. The tongue continues to lengthen and inflate with more lava, forming a lobe, until the pressure of the magma becomes sufficient to rupture the skin and start the formation of a new eruption point nearer the vent. This process produces a series of interconnecting lobate shapes that are pillow-like in cross-section. The skin cools a lot faster than the inside of the pillow, so it is very fine grained, with a glassy texture. The magma inside the pillow cools more slowly, so is slightly coarser grained than the skin, but still classified as fine grained.
Use as a 'Way-up' criterion
- Vesicles will be found towards the top of a pillow as the gas will be less dense than the surrounding rock.
- The pillow structures will show a convex upper surface.
- The pillows will have a tapered base downwards as they have moulded to the underlying pillows during their formation.
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