Columnar jointing - the mechanics of thermal contraction in cooling lavas

Monday, 15 December 2014
Yan Lavallée1, Fiona Iddon2, Adrian J Hornby1, Jackie E Kendrick1, Felix W. von Aulock1 and Fabian B Wadsworth3, (1)University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom, (2)University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom, (3)Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Munich, Germany
Columnar joints are spectacular features of volcanic rocks, which form by cracking during cooling-induced contraction of lava. The process, and resultant geometry, manifests a complex interplay between heat dissipation, contraction and tensile strength, yet the formation temperature of such joints remains elusive. Here, we present results from a combination of field survey, thermo-analytical characterisation and mechanical investigation to constrain conditions favourable for columnar jointing.

Columnar joints at Seljavellir, a basaltic lava flow at the base of Eyjafjallajökull volcano (Iceland) produce quadratic to heptagonal cross sectional patterns with column widths ranging from 20 to 70 cm in size. The fracture surfaces are characterised by striae with spacing (between 1 to 6 cm) that shares a positive linear relationship to the joint spacing. The striae exhibit both a rough and smooth portion, interpreted to express a change in deformation regime from a ductile response as stress builds up to a fully brittle, mode-I fracture propagation at high stress accumulation.

To test the thermo-mechanics of columnar joints we developed an experimental setup to investigate the stress, strain-to-failure and temperature at which basalts undergo tensile failure during cooling from the solidus temperature of 980 °C. We find that fractures initiate at ~800 °C, revealed by a change in stress accumulation (i.e., Young modulus), and complete failure completes after some 0.4% strain at ~670 °C. We interpret the two-stage fracture dynamics as the cause for the change in fracture surface roughness observed in nature.

We coupled this dataset with Brazil tensile tests at 30, 400, 600, 800 and 1000 °C. We note that the strain to failure decrease from 1% (>800 °C) to 0.4% (<800 °C). Complementary dilatometric measurements (at 3mN of normal stress and a rate of 2 C/min) constrain the expansion coefficient to be linear and equal to 10-5/°C below the solid temperature. Simple ratio between strain-to-failure and expansion coefficient suggests that 400 °C of cooling (from the solidus) is require to achieve tensile failure by thermal contraction, supporting the first suite of experiments. We conclude that columnar jointing is not a phenomenon that takes place in molten lava, but rather occurs well within the solid state of volcanic rocks.