lava (läˈvə) [key], molten rock that erupts on the earth's surface, either on land or under the ocean, by a volcano or through a fissure. It solidifies into igneous rock that is also called lava. Before reaching the earth's surface, the mixture of solid and liquid rock, and gases, is known as magma. Lavas are composed chiefly of silica and the oxides of aluminum, iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Silica, with soda and potash, predominates in the light-colored, acid felsites; iron oxides, lime, and magnesia, in the dark-colored, basic basalts. Rock froth forms on the upper part of a lava flow if bubbles solidify before the gas can escape. Light-colored, glassy froth is pumice; dark, cindery or slaggy froth, of a coarser texture than pumice, forms what is known as scoriae. Lava flows which solidify as a mass of blocks and fragments with a rough surface are called block lava, or aa; those which solidify with a smooth, ropy, billowy surface are known as corded lava, or pahoehoe. Lava can sometimes cover wide regions through great fissures in the earth's surface, as in the ancient Columbia River plateau of the NW United States, where it is spread over 30,000 sq mi (77,700 sq km) and is up to 5,000 ft (1,524 m) deep. Other such regions are found in the Deccan plateau of India, in E Brazil, and in Iceland. Submarine lavas develop through volcanic activity along the mid-oceanic ridges and plate boundaries, where the mid-oceanic ridges produce more lava than any continental eruptions. Such underwater eruptions also harbor rich fauna unique to the vent area, such as red tube worms and giant clams, whose food supply is based on the hydrogen sulfide abundant in the vent waters. Unique features include black smokers, or hot springs of mineral-rich water that belch out from the ocean ridge where it is most active. In many instances the reasons for the heat and liquidity of magma, its exact source, and the causes of its rise in the earth are not clearly known, though the volcanic activity is often related to seafloor spreading. Other volcanic areas also lie along colliding plate boundaries and around rising magma hot spots. See plate tectonics.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.