Letter | Published:

Interaction of sea water and lava during submarine eruptions at mid-ocean ridges


Lava erupts into cold sea water on the ocean floor at mid-ocean ridges (at depths of 2,500 m and greater), and the resulting flows make up the upper part of the global oceanic crust1. Interactions between heated sea water and molten basaltic lava could exert significant control on the dynamics of lava flows and on their chemistry. But it has been thought that heating sea water at pressures of several hundred bars cannot produce significant amounts of vapour2,3,4,5 and that a thick crust of chilled glass on the exterior of lava flows minimizes the interaction of lava with sea water. Here we present evidence to the contrary, and show that bubbles of vaporized sea water often rise through the base of lava flows and collect beneath the chilled upper crust. These bubbles of steam at magmatic temperatures may interact both chemically and physically with flowing lava, which could influence our understanding of deep-sea volcanic processes and oceanic crustal construction more generally6. We infer that vapour formation plays an important role in creating the collapse features that characterize much of the upper oceanic crust and may accordingly contribute to the measured low seismic velocities in this layer.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Perfit, M. R. & Chadwick, W. W. in Faulting and Magmatism at Mid-Ocean Ridges (eds Buck, R. W., Delaney, P. T., Karson, J. A. & Lagabrielle, Y.) AGU Monograph 106 59–115 (American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1999)

  2. 2

    Batiza, R. & White, J. D. L. in Encyclopedia of Volcanology (ed. Sigurdsson, H.) 383–402 (Academic, San Diego, 2000)

  3. 3

    Haymon, R. M. et al. Volcanic eruption of the mid-ocean ridge along the East Pacific Rise crest at 9 degrees 45–52′N: Direct submersible observations of seafloor phenomena associated with an eruption event in April, 1991. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 119, 85–101 (1993)

  4. 4

    Head, J. W. & Wilson, L. Deep submarine pyroclastic eruptions: Theory and predicted landforms and deposits. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 121, 155–193 (2003)

  5. 5

    Clague, D. A., Davis, A. S., Bischoff, J. L., Dixon, J. E. & Geyer, R. Lava bubble-wall fragments formed by submarine hydrovolcanic explosions on Loihi Seamount and Kilauea Volcano. Bull. Volcanol. 61, 437–449 (2000)

  6. 6

    Engels, J., Edwards, M. H., Fornari, D. J., Perfit, M. R. & Cann, J. R. A new model for submarine volcanic collapse formation. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4, 1078 (DOI:1029:2003GC000560) 18 September 2003

  7. 7

    Ballard, R. D., Holcomb, R. T. & van Andel, T. H. The Galapagos Rift at 86°W: Sheet flows, collapse pits, and lava lakes of the rift valley. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 5407–5422 (1979)

  8. 8

    Embley, R. W. & Chadwick, W. W. Volcanic and hydrothermal processes associated with a recent phase of seafloor spreading at the northern Cleft segment; Juan de Fuca Ridge. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 4741–4760 (1994)

  9. 9

    Fornari, D. J., Haymon, R. M., Perfit, M. R., Gregg, T. K. P. & Edwards, M. H. Geological characteristics and evolution of the axial zone on fast spreading mid-ocean ridges: Formation of an axial summit trough along the East Pacific Rise, 9°-10° N. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 9827–9855 (1998)

  10. 10

    Smith, D. K. & Cann, J. R. Constructing the upper crust of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: A reinterpretation based on the Puna Ridge, Kilauea Volcano. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 25379–25399 (1999)

  11. 11

    Sinton, J. et al. Volcanic eruptions on MORs: new evidence from the superfast-spreading EPR, 17°-19°S. J. Geophys. Res. 107 (DOI:10.1029/2000JB000090) (2000)

  12. 12

    Francheteau, J., Juteau, T. & Rangan, C. Basaltic pillars in collapsed lava-pools on the deep ocean floor. Nature 281, 209–211 (1979)

  13. 13

    Gregg, T. K. P. & Chadwick, W. W. Submarine lava-flow inflation: a model for the formation of lava pillars. Geology 24, 981–984 (1996)

  14. 14

    Gregg, T. K. P., Fornari, D. J., Perfit, M. R., Ridley, W. I. & Kurz, M. D. Using submarine lava pillars to record MOR eruption dynamics. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 178, 195–214 (2000)

  15. 15

    Chadwick, W. W. Jr Quantitative constraints on the growth of submarine lava pillars from a monitoring instrument that was caught in a lava flow. J. Geophys. Res. (in the press)

  16. 16

    Peterson, D. W. & Swanson, D. A. Observed formation of lava tubes. Stud. Speleol. 2, 209–222 (1974)

  17. 17

    Maicher, D. & White, J. D. L. The formation of deep-sea Limu o Pele. Bull. Volcanol. 63, 482–496 (2001)

  18. 18

    Sharapov, V. N., Pavlov, A. L., Akimtsev, V. A. & Zhmodik, A. S. Physicochemical conditions of mineral deposition from magmatic gases in basalts of the mid-ocean ridges. Geol. Ore Deposits 43, 76–87 (2001)

  19. 19

    Fouquet, Y. et al. Extensive volcaniclastic deposits at the mid-Atlantic Ridge axis: Results of deep-water basaltic explosive activity? Terra Nova 10, 280–286 (1998)

  20. 20

    Tribble, G. W. Underwater observations of active lava flows from Kilauea volcano, Hawaii. Geology 19, 633–636 (1991)

  21. 21

    Dixon, J. E., Stolper, E. & Delaney, J. R. Infrared spectroscopic measurements of CO2 and H2O in Juan de Fuca basaltic glasses. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 90, 87–104 (1988)

  22. 22

    Le Roux, P. J., Shirey, S. B., Hauri, E. H., Perfit, M. R. & Mock, T. Degassing and preliminary assimilation histories of selected on- and off-axis EPR MORB glasses. Goldschmidt Conf. Abstr. Geochem. Soc. A 437 (2002)

  23. 23

    Sourirajan, S. & Kennedy, G. C. The system H2O-NaCl at elevated temperatures and pressures. Am. J. Sci. 260, 115–141 (1962)

  24. 24

    Berndt, M. E. & Seyfried, W. E. Calibration of Br/Cl fractionation during sub-critical phase separation of seawater; Possible halite at 9 to 10 degrees N, East Pacific Rise. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 61, 2849–2854 (1997)

  25. 25

    Griffiths, R. W. & Fink, J. H. Solidification and morphology of submarine lavas: A dependence on extrusion rate. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 19729–19737 (1992)

  26. 26

    Gregg, T. K. P. & Fink, J. H. Quantification of submarine lava-flow morphology through analog experiments. Geology 23, 73–76 (1995)

  27. 27

    Klingelhofer, F., Hort, M., Kumpel, H.-J. & Schmincke, H.-U. Constraints on the formation of submarine lava flows from numerical model calculations. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 92, 215–229 (1999)

  28. 28

    Watters, A. C. Determining direction of flow in basalts. Am. J. Sci. A 258, 350–366 (1960)

  29. 29

    Hon, K., Kauahikaua, J., Denlinger, R. & Mackay, K. Emplacement and inflation of pahoehoe sheet flows: Observations and measurements of active lava flows on Kilauea Volcano. Hawaii. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 106, 351–370 (1994)

  30. 30

    Dixon, J. E., Stolper, E. M. & Holloway, J. R. An experimental study of water and carbon dioxide solubilities in mid ocean ridge basaltic liquids, 1. Calibration and solubility models. J. Petrol. 36, 1607–1631 (1995)

  31. 31

    Michael, P. J. & Cornell, W. C. Influence of spreading rate and magma supply on crystallization and assimilation beneath mid-ocean ridges: Evidence from chlorine and major-element chemistry of mid-ocean ridge basalts. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 18325–18356 (1998)

Download references


We thank the Deep Submergence Operations Group, and Alvin and R/V Atlantis crews at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for assistance in collecting these data. We also thank I. Jonasson for pointing out similar features on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. M. Smith, W. Chadwick, D. Clague, T. Gregg, M. Tivey and S. Humphris provided discussions and comments on the manuscript. J. E. Dixon and J. Fink provided reviews. J.R.C. was supported in part by internal funds of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. W.I.R. publishes with permission of the Director, US Geological Survey. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Author information

Correspondence to Michael R. Perfit.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1 (JPG 250 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2 (JPG 114 kb)

Supplementary Tables and Figure Legends (RTF 104 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading

Figure 1: Macroscopic features of mid-ocean-ridge basalts indicative of magma–sea water interaction.
Figure 2: Various images of textures and minerals in deep-sea basalt associated with lava–vapour interaction.
Figure 3: Microscopic features observed by SEM analysis of undersides of basalt crusts collected at the East Pacific Rise near 9° 50′ N from a depth of 2,510 m.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.