Reading: Dikes and Sills


A Geological dike at Makhtesh Ramon, Negev, Israel

Figure 1. A magmatic dike cross-cutting horizontal layers of sedimentary rock, in Makhtesh Ramon, Israel

A dike is a sheet of rock that formed in a fracture in a pre-existing rock body. Dikes can be either magmatic or sedimentary in origin. Magmatic dikes form when magma intrudes into a crack then crystallizes as a sheet intrusion, either cutting across layers of rock or through an unlayered mass of rock. Clastic dikes are formed when sediment fills a pre-existing crack.[1]

Magmatic Dikes

An intrusive dike is an igneous body with a very high aspect ratio, which means that its thickness is usually much smaller than the other two dimensions. Thickness can vary from sub-centimeter scale to many meters, and the lateral dimensions can extend over many kilometres. A dike is an intrusion into an opening cross-cutting fissure, shouldering aside other pre-existing layers or bodies of rock; this implies that a dike is always younger than the rocks that contain it. Dikes are usually high-angle to near-vertical in orientation, but subsequent tectonic deformation may rotate the sequence of strata through which the dike propagates so that the dike becomes horizontal. Near-horizontal, or conformable intrusions, along bedding planes between strata are called intrusive sills.

Sometimes dikes appear in swarms, consisting of several to hundreds of dikes emplaced more or less contemporaneously during a single intrusive event. The world’s largest dike swarm is the Mackenzie dike swarm in the Northwest Territories, Canada.[2]

Dikes often form as either radial or concentric swarms around plutonic intrusives, volcanic necks or feeder vents in volcanic cones. The latter are known as ring dikes.

Dikes can vary in texture and their composition can range from diabase or basaltic to granitic or rhyolitic, but on a global perspective the basaltic composition prevails, manifesting ascent of vast volumes of mantle-derived magmas through fractured lithosphere throughout Earth history. Pegmatite dikes comprise extremely coarse crystalline granitic rocks—often associated with late-stage granite intrusions or metamorphic segregations. Aplite dikes are fine-grained or sugary-textured intrusives of granitic composition.

A small dike on the Baranof Cross-Island Trail, Alaska

Figure 2. A small dike on the Baranof Cross-Island Trail, Alaska

Sedimentary Dikes

Clastic dike in the Chinle Formation in the Island In the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Taken May 9, 2002. Scale bar on notebook is 10 cm.

Figure 3. Clastic dike (left of notebook) in the Chinle Formation in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Sedimentary dikes or clastic dikes are vertical bodies of sedimentary rock that cut off other rock layers. They can form in two ways:

  • When a shallow unconsolidated sediment is composed of alternating coarse grained andimpermeable clay layers the fluid pressure inside the coarser layers may reach a critical value due to lithostatic overburden. Driven by the fluid pressure the sediment breaks through overlying layers and forms a dike.
  • When a soil is under permafrost conditions the pore water is totally frozen. When cracks are formed in such rocks, they may fill up with sediments that fall in from above. The result is a vertical body of sediment that cuts through horizontal layers: a dike.


In geology, a sill is a tabular sheet intrusion that has intruded between older layers of sedimentary rock, beds of volcanic lava or tuff, or even along the direction of foliation in metamorphic rock. The term sill is synonymous with concordant intrusive sheet. This means that the sill does not cut across preexisting rocks, in contrast to dikes, discordant intrusive sheets which do cut across older rocks. Sills are fed by dikes, except in unusual locations where they form in nearly vertical beds attached directly to a magma source. The rocks must be brittle and fracture to create the planes along which the magma intrudes the parent rock bodies, whether this occurs along preexisting planes between sedimentary or volcanic beds or weakened planes related to foliation in metamorphic rock. These planes or weakened areas allow the intrusion of a thin sheet-like body of magma paralleling the existing bedding planes, concordant fracture zone, or foliations.

A representation of the difference between a dike and a sill, intruded into stratified country rock.

Figure 4. Illustration showing the difference between a dike and a sill.

Sills parallel beds (layers) and foliations in the surrounding country rock. They can be originally emplaced in a horizontal orientation, although tectonic processes may cause subsequent rotation of horizontal sills into near vertical orientations. Sills can be confused with solidified lava flows; however, there are several differences between them. Intruded sills will show partial melting and incorporation of the surrounding country rock. On both contact surfaces of the country rock into which the sill has intruded, evidence of heating will be observed (contact metamorphism). Lava flows will show this evidence only on the lower side of the flow. In addition, lava flows will typically show evidence of vesicles (bubbles) where gases escaped into the atmosphere. Because sills generally form at shallow depths (up to many kilometers) below the surface, the pressure of overlying rock prevents this from happening much, if at all. Lava flows will also typically show evidence of weathering on their upper surface, whereas sills, if still covered by country rock, typically do not.

Associated Ore Deposits

Dolerite (diabase) sill of Mid-Carboniferous age cutting shales and sandstones of the Lower Carboniferous Horton Group, Horton Bluff, near Cheverie, Minas Basin South Shore, Nova Scotia, Canada. The sill is the more resistant band.

Figure 5. Mid-Carboniferous dolerite sill cutting Lower Carboniferous shales and sandstones, Horton Bluff, Minas Basin South Shore, Nova Scotia

Certain layered intrusions are a variety of sill that often contain important ore deposits. Precambrian examples include the Bushveld, Insizwa and the Great Dyke complexes of southern Africa, the Duluth intrusive complex of the Superior District, and the Stillwater igneous complex of the United States. Phanerozoic examples are usually smaller and include the Rùm peridotite complex of Scotland and the Skaergaard igneous complex of east Greenland. These intrusions often contain concentrations of gold, platinum, chromium and other rare elements.

Transgressive Sills

Despite their concordant nature, many large sills change stratigraphic level within the intruded sequence, with each concordant part of the intrusion linked by relatively short dike-like segments. Such sills are known as transgressive, examples include the Whin Sill and sills within the Karoo basin.[3] The geometry of large sill complexes in sedimentary basins has become clearer with the availability of 3D seismic reflection data.[4] Such data has shown that many sills have an overall saucer shape and that many others are at least in part transgressive.[5]

Other Meanings

“Sill” may also refer to the rise in depth near the mouth of a fjord caused by the terminal moraine of the previous glacier.

  1. Essentials of Geology, 3rd Ed, Stephen Marshak
  2. Pilkington, Mark and Walter R. Roest; Removing varying directional trends in aeromagnetic data, Geophysics, vol. 63 no. 2 (1998), pp. 446–453. abstract
  3. Holmes, A. 1978. Principles of Physical Geology, Van Nostrand Reinhold (UK) Co.Ltd., 720 pp. See also, Polteau, S., Mazzini, A., Galland, O., Planke, S. & Malthe-Sørenssen, A. 2008. Saucer-shaped intrusions: Occurrences, emplacement and implications, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 266, 195–204.
  4. Thomson, K. & Hutton, D. 2004. Geometry and growth of sill complexes: insights using 3D seismic from the North Rockall Trough, Bulletin of Volcanology, 66, 364–375.
  5. Planke, S., Rasmussen, T., Rey, S.S. & Myklebust, R. 2005. Seismic characteristics and distribution of volcanic intrusions and hydrothermal vent complexes in the Vøring and Møre basins, In: Doré, A. G. & Vining, B. A. (eds) Petroleum Geology: North-West Europe and Global Perspectives — Proceedings of the 6th Petroleum Geology Conference, 833–844. Petroleum Geology Conferences Ltd. Published by the Geological Society, London.