Bulletin of Volcanology

, 79:7 | Cite as

Pāhoehoe, ‘a‘ā, and block lava: an illustrated history of the nomenclature

  • Andrew J. L. HarrisEmail author
  • Scott K. Rowland
  • Nicolas Villeneuve
  • Thor Thordarson
Review Article


Lava flows occur worldwide, and throughout history, various cultures (and geologists) have described flows based on their surface textures. As a result, surface morphology-based nomenclature schemes have been proposed in most languages to aid in the classification and distinction of lava surface types. One of the first to be published was likely the nine-class, Italian-language description-based classification proposed by Mario Gemmellaro in 1858. By far, the most commonly used terms to describe lava surfaces today are not descriptive but, instead, are merely words, specifically the Hawaiian words ‘a‘ā (rough brecciated basalt lava) and pāhoehoe (smooth glassy basalt lava), plus block lava (thick brecciated lavas that are typically more silicic than basalt). ‘A‘ā and pāhoehoe were introduced into the Western geological vocabulary by American geologists working in Hawai‘i during the 1800s. They and other nineteenth century geologists proposed formal lava-type classification schemes for scientific use, and most of them used the Hawaiian words. In 1933, Ruy Finch added the third lava type, block lava, to the classification scheme, with the tripartite system being formalized in 1953 by Gordon Macdonald. More recently, particularly since the 1980s and based largely on studies of lava flow interiors, a number of sub-types and transitional forms of all three major lava types have been defined. This paper reviews the early history of the development of the pāhoehoe, ‘a‘ā, and block lava-naming system and presents a new descriptive classification so as to break out the three parental lava types into their many morphological sub-types.


Pāhoehoe ‘A‘ā Block lava Nomenclature Classification Morphology 



Mahalo to Puakea Nogelmeier for the advice on Hawaiian language history and for pointing us in the direction of Schütz (1994), ありがとう to Ken Koga and Tomoaki Morishita for the discussions regarding Japanese translation and pronunciation, grazie mille to Sonia Calvari for the checking of the Sicilian terminologies used by Gemmellaro (1858), and thanks stacks for the reviews and advice of Mike James, Steve Self, and James White. This is a Laboratory of Excellence ClerVolc contribution no. 220 and SOEST publication no. 9850.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew J. L. Harris
    • 1
    Email author
  • Scott K. Rowland
    • 2
  • Nicolas Villeneuve
    • 3
  • Thor Thordarson
    • 4
  1. 1.Laboratoire Magmas et VolcansUniversité Blaise PascalAubièreFrance
  2. 2.Department of Geology and Geophysics, School of Ocean and Earth Science and TechnologyUniversity of Hawai‘i at MānoaHonoluluUSA
  3. 3.Observatoire Volcanologique du Piton de la Fournaise, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, Sorbonne Paris CitéUniversity of Paris Diderot, CNRSLa Plaine des CafresFrance
  4. 4.School of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Faculty of Earth SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavikIceland

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