Igneous Rock Reticulite

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Benjamin Andrews, Ph.D.

Geologist Ben Andrews on top of volcano Sant Maria, in Guatemala, looking down on Santiaguito.

Photographed by unknown source, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Benjamin Andrews is a research geologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who specializes in the study of volcanoes around the world. While growing up in Portland, Oregon, he often went hiking and backpacking in the nearby Cascade Range, home to Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes, and the Columbia River Gorge, lined with basalt. Prior to his senior year of high school, Andrews took a six-week geology field course with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; an experience that convinced him to make the study of volcanoes his career. After earning his doctorate from the University of Texas in 2009, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley before joining the Smithsonian in 2011. In 2012 Andrews and researchers from Italy, Germany, and the United States traveled to Guatemala to study ongoing changes to the active lava dome of Santa Maria, an erupting volcano. At the Smithsonian, he runs experiments that simulate pyroclastic density currents of materials spewing from volcano vents, and he also is doing ongoing research on volcanoes in California and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. Andrews and several of his colleagues participate in the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, which tracks the activity of volcanoes worldwide.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Lava fountains erupt from Krafla volcano in Iceland
Photographed by Michael Ryan, U.S. Geological Survey, Public Domain

How Igneous Rocks Are Formed

Earth's crust, or outermost rocky layer, sits on top of a deeper layer called the mantle, which stores heat from two sources: the formation of the Earth 4.65 billion years ago and the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium. When cracks between huge crustal plates open up, the gap causes the underlying mantle to rise up. The upwelling partially melts that region of the mantle; scientists call that decompression melting. The molten rock, or magma, is less dense than solid rock, so it moves upward, the way a cork bobs to the surface of water. As the magma reaches the upper layers of the crust or even Earth's surface, it cools and hardens into a solid known as igneous rock. Scientists categorize igneous rocks according to their chemical composition, the method of their formation, and their degree of crystallization.

Some types of pumice are less dense than water, so they float
Photo by Marli Bryant Miller

About Vesicles in Igneous Rocks

The bubbles in a bottle of carbonated beverage do not exist until someone removes the sealed cap, thus releasing the external pressure on the liquid. Likewise, when magma erupts from beneath the Earth's surface, the sudden release of pressure causes dissolved gases to form bubbles within the molten rock. Geologists call these bubbles "vesicles." As the bubbles grow larger, due to decreasing pressure and more gas coming out of the magma, the magma becomes less dense, so it may rise faster and spew out of the ground. Rapid cooling of the lava may solidify it into a porous, cavity-filled rock before all the bubbles have a chance to reach the surface of the liquid and burst. Pumice and scoria are two types of rock rich in vesicles. In some cases, heated groundwater may deposit other minerals such as calcite into empty vesicles after the erupted magma has solidified, so the resulting rock may resemble a cookie filled with nuts. Scientists call this texture "amygdaloidal."