Optimal depth of subvolcanic magma chamber growth controlled by volatiles and crust rheology

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Storage pressures of magma chambers influence the style, frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions. Neutral buoyancy or rheological transitions are commonly assumed to control where magmas accumulate and form such chambers. However, the density of volatile-rich silicic magmas is typically lower than that of the surrounding crust, and the rheology of the crust alone does not define the depth of the brittle–ductile transition around a magma chamber. Yet, typical storage pressures inferred from geophysical inversions or petrological methods seem to cluster around 2 ± 0.5 kbar in all tectonic settings and crustal compositions. Here, we use thermomechanical modelling to show that storage pressure is controlled by volatile exsolution and crustal rheology. At pressures \(\lesssim\)1.5 kbar, and for geologically realistic water contents, chamber volumes and recharge rates, the presence of an exsolved magmatic volatile phase hinders chamber growth because eruptive volumes are typically larger than recharges feeding the system during periods of dormancy. At pressures \(>rsim\)2.5 kbar, the viscosity of the crust in long-lived magmatic provinces is sufficiently low to inhibit most eruptions. Sustainable eruptible magma reservoirs are able to develop only within a relatively narrow range of pressures around 2 ± 0.5 kbar, where the amount of exsolved volatiles fosters growth while the high viscosity of the crust promotes the necessary overpressurization for eruption.

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Fig. 1: A regime diagram showing the evolution of magma chambers at a pressure of 2 kbar.
Fig. 2: Regime diagrams of eruptible and growing chambers as a function of magma water content, depth, magma recharge rate and initial volume.
Fig. 3: Pressure distribution where melt/active magma reservoir is inferred from petrology or geophysical methods.
Fig. 4: A summary diagram comparing numerical simulations with geophysical and petrological data.

Data availability

The datasets generated during this study (outputs from numerical simulations) are available from the corresponding author on request.

Code availability

The code used to generate the magma chamber growth outputs can be accessed by contacting the corresponding author.


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The authors would like to thank K.-X. Chen for providing Fig. 3b,c in a format that allowed us to modify the figure. C.H. is funded through an NSF CAREER grant, M.T. is funded through NSF-EAR 1760004 awarded to C.H., and O.B. is funded by the Swiss National Fund 200021_178928. The authors dedicate this paper to the memory of our colleague and friend James Dale Webster.

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C.H. and O.B. conceived the study with valuable inputs from M.T. and W.D. The numerical model was developed by C.H., W.D. and M.T. The analysis of the results was conducted by C.H. and M.T. and the initial draft of the manuscript was written by C.H. with improvements and substantial edits from M.T., W.D. and O.B.

Correspondence to Christian Huber.

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Huber, C., Townsend, M., Degruyter, W. et al. Optimal depth of subvolcanic magma chamber growth controlled by volatiles and crust rheology. Nat. Geosci. 12, 762–768 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0415-6

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