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Diffusion chronometry and the timescales of magmatic processes


Volcanic eruptions can represent major societal hazards. Placing tighter bounds on the timescales of magmatic processes that precede eruptions is, therefore, important for volcano monitoring and forecasting. Diffusion chronometry, where volcanic crystals that contain chemical gradients are treated as time capsules, allows the timescale of various magmatic processes to be constrained. In this Review, we discuss the basics of diffusion chronometry and describe how re-equilibration via chemical diffusion provides insights into the timescales of magma storage, ascent and eruption. Crystals from mafic volcanoes record timescales of days to years between magma intrusion and eruption, which broadly match those recorded by monitoring data (such as increased seismicity). The timescales recorded in crystals from large silicic calderas, however, are typically longer than those from mafic volcanoes, spanning decades to millennia, but almost two orders of magnitude shorter than the timescales obtained by U-Th isotope disequilibria in zircon. The cause of this discrepancy is debated but likely reflects the protracted magma accumulation and complex thermal history that many crystals experience before eruption. Diffusion chronometry adds the fourth dimension to volcano science (that is, time), and advances in analytical and experimental approaches (such as NanoSIMS) open up new opportunities for understanding magmatic systems.

Key points

  • Diffusion modelling of the chemical gradients in crystals can be used to extract invaluable time information from magmatic systems.

  • Crystals from mafic volcanoes record the timescales of magma and transfer towards eruption that correlate with surface-monitoring data.

  • Crystals from silicic volcanoes record timescales of magma remobilization and storage on the order of decades to hundreds of years, much shorter than U-Th dating of zircons.

  • Further studies that integrate diffusion chronometry, using a wide range of elements and minerals, with thermal models of magmatic systems are required to understand the timescales of magma storage and remobilization.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of a basaltic magma system below a volcano.
Fig. 2: The potential and current applications of diffusion chronometry.
Fig. 3: Multi-element chemical map of a clinopyroxene megacryst from Stromboli volcano.
Fig. 4: Comparison of the effects of diffusion and crystal growth.
Fig. 5: Correlation of diffusion chronometry with monitoring data.
Fig. 6: Use of melt embayments to determine timescales of magma decompression.
Fig. 7: Diffusion timescales obtained from different minerals in silicic systems.


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F.C. acknowledges a Singapore National Research Foundation Investigatorship award (grant number NRF-NRFI2017-06). T.U. acknowledges funding from The University of Queensland (UQ-FREA RM2019001828 and UQ-MRFF RM2016000555). T.S. is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF EAR grant 1725321).

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F.C. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from T.S. and T.U. T.S. drafted the figures, with contributions from T.U. and F.C.

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Correspondence to F. Costa.

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Diffusion coefficient

The constant of proportionality between the mass flux of elements through a given surface and the gradient of concentration due to elemental diffusion.

Classical nucleation theory

Thermodynamic formalism where the free energy of formation of a mineral or bubble nucleus of critical size overcomes the energy associated with creating a new interface.

Partition coefficients

Measures of the preference of a given element to be incorporated in a mineral (compatible) or remain in the melt (incompatible).

Secular equilibrium

Condition where the quantity of a radioactive isotope remains constant.


The time required for half the amount of the parent radioactive isotope to decay into a daughter one; disequilibria can usually be detected for ~5 times the half-life of the daughter.

Point defects

Defects in the lattice structure of solid media that can represent missing atoms (vacancies) or extra atoms (interstitials).

Anisotropic diffusion

Diffusion coefficients in crystals may vary according to crystallographic axes, owing to the different arrangement of atoms in non-cubic minerals.

Plutonic bodies

Magmatic environments below the Earth’s surface (within the crust), where magmas cool slowly and form plutonic rocks, such as granites.


Calculation of the pressure and temperature of crystallization using experimentally calibrated models and the composition of natural mineral–glass or mineral–mineral pairs.


Explosive eruption with similar dynamics to Plinian events but of lower intensity and eruptive column height.

Monogenetic volcanic fields

Areas in which volcanoes are built by a single eruption. They are typically small cones of a few tens to a few hundred metres tall, basaltic in composition and formed over time frames of weeks to years.

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Costa, F., Shea, T. & Ubide, T. Diffusion chronometry and the timescales of magmatic processes. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 201–214 (2020).

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