Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 54, Issue 3, pp 171–186

Distinguishing strongly rheomorphic tuffs from extensive silicic lavas

  • Christopher D Henry
  • John A Wolff

DOI: 10.1007/BF00278387

Cite this article as:
Henry, C.D. & Wolff, J.A. Bull Volcanol (1992) 54: 171. doi:10.1007/BF00278387


High-temperature silicic volcanic rocks, including strongly rheomorphic tuffs and extensive silicic lavas, have recently been recognized to be abundant in the geologic record. However, their mechanisms of eruption and emplacement are still controversial, and traditional criteria used to distinguish conventional ash-flow tuffs from silicic lavas largely fail to distinguish the high-temperature versions. We suggest the following criteria, ordered in decreasing ease of identification, to distinguish strongly rheomorphic tuffs from extensive silicic lavas: (1) the character of basal deposits; (2) the nature of distal parts of flows; (3) the relationship of units to pre-existing topography; and (4) the type of source. As a result of quenching against the ground, basal deposits best preserve primary features, can be observed in single outcrops, and do not require knowing the full extent of a unit. Lavas commonly develop basal breccias composed of a variety of textural types of the flow in a finer clastic matrix; such deposits are unique to lavas. Because the chilled base of an ashflow tuff generally does not participate in secondary flow, primary pyroclastic features are best preserved there. Massive, flow-banded bases are more consistent with a lava than a pyroclastic origin. Lavas are thick to their margins and have steep, abrupt flow fronts. Ashflow tuffs thin to no more than a few meters at their distal ends, where they generally do not show any secondary flow features. Lavas are stopped by topographic barriers unless the flow is much thicker than the barrier. Ash-flow tuffs moving at even relatively slow velocities can climb over barriers much higher than the resulting deposit. Lavas dominantly erupt from fissures and maintain fairly uniform thicknesses throughout their extents. Tuffs commonly erupt from calderas where they can pond to thicknesses many times those of their outflow deposits. These criteria may also prove effective in distinguishing extensive silicic lavas from a postulated rock type termed lava-like ignimbrite. The latter have characteristics of lavas except for great areal extents, up to many tens of kilometers. These rocks have been interpreted as ash-flow tuffs that formed from low, boiling-over eruption columns, based almost entirely on their great extents and the belief that silicic lavas could not flow such distances. However, we interpret the best known examples of lava-like ignimbrites to be lavas. This interpretation should be tested through additional documentation of their characteristics and research on the boiling-over eruption mechanism and the kinds of deposits it can produce. Flow bands, flow folds, ramps, elongate vesicles, and probably upper breccias occur in both lavas and strongly rheomorphic tuffs and are therefore not diagnostic. Pumice and shards also occur in both tuffs and lavas, although they occur throughout ash-flow tuffs and generally only in marginal breccias of lavas. Dense welding, secondary flow, and intense alteration accompanying crystallization at high temperature commonly obliterate primary textures in both thick, rheomorphic tuffs and thick lavas. High-temperature silicic volcanic rocks are dominantly associated with tholeiitic flood basalts. Extensive silicic lavas could be appropriately termed flood rhyolites.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher D Henry
    • 1
  • John A Wolff
    • 2
  1. 1.Bureau of Economic GeologyUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeologyUniversity of Texas at Arlington, UTAArlingtonUSA