Igneous Features

Classify and identify igneous features.

This section will introduce you to common volcanic features including types of deposits and lava associated with different volcano types.

What You’ll Learn to Do

  • Recognize pyroclastic deposit
  • Differentiate between a dike and a sill
  • Recognize different volcanic landforms
  • Describe the development of continental and oceanic crusts.

Pyroclastic Deposits

U.S. Geological Survey scientist examines pumice blocks at the edge of a pyroclastic flow from the May 18, 1980 eruption.

Figure 1. USGS scientist examines pumice blocks at the edge of a pyroclastic flow from Mount St. Helens

Pyroclastic rocks or pyroclastics are clastic rocks composed solely or primarily of volcanic materials. Where the volcanic material has been transported and reworked through mechanical action, such as by wind or water, these rocks are termed volcaniclastic. Commonly associated with unsieved volcanic activity—such as Plinian or krakatoan eruption styles, or phreatomagmatic eruptions—pyroclastic deposits are commonly formed from airborne ash, lapilli and bombs or blocks ejected from the volcano itself, mixed in with shatteredcountry rock.

Pyroclastic rocks may be a range of clast sizes, from the largest agglomerates, to very fine ashes and tuffs. Pyroclasts of different sizes are classified as volcanic bombs, lapilli, and volcanic ash. Ash is considered to be pyroclastic because it is a fine dust made up of volcanic rock. One of the most spectacular forms of pyroclastic deposit are the ignimbrites, deposits formed by the high-temperature gas-and-ash mix of a pyroclastic flow event.


Types of Pyroclasts[1]
Clast size Pyroclast Mainly unconsolidated: Tephra Mainly consolidated: Pyroclastic rock
> 64 mm Block, bomb Agglomerate Agglomerate, pyroclastic breccia
< 64 mm Lapillus Layer, lapilli tephra Lapilli tuff, lapillistone
< 2 mm Coarse ash Coarse ash Coarse (ash) tuff
< 0.063 mm Fine ash Fine ash Fine (ash) tuff
Rocks from the Bishop Tuff, an ignimbrite tuff from Owens River Gorge, California. On the left, a rock from the latter stages of the eruption and the top of the deposit; note large grey, oval pumice fragments. On the right, a rock from the earlier part of the eruption and the bottom of the deposit; note dark, flat fiamme (squished pumice) and apparent increase in phenocrysts, though the compression that caused the fiamme most likely compressed the matrix of the tuff, increasing the apparent abundance of crystals, with respect to the matrix.

Figure 2. Rocks from the Bishop Tuff, uncompressed with pumice on left; compressed with fiamme on right.

Three modes of transport can be distinguished: pyroclastic flow, pyroclastic surge, and pyroclastic fall. During Plinian eruptions, pumice and ash are formed when silicic magma is fragmented in the volcanic conduit, because of decompression and the growth of bubbles. Pyroclasts are then entrained in a buoyant eruption plume which can rise several kilometers into the air and cause aviation hazards. Particles falling from the eruption clouds form layers on the ground (this is pyroclastic fall or tephra). Pyroclastic density currents, which are referred to as “flows” or “surges” depending on particle concentration and the level turbulence, are sometimes called glowing avalanches. The deposits of pumice-rich pyroclastic flows can be called ignimbrites.

A pyroclastic eruption entails spitting or “fountaining” lava, where the lava will be thrown into the air along with ash, pyroclastic materials, and other volcanic byproducts. Hawaiian eruptions such as those at Kīlauea can eject clots of magma suspended into gas; this is called a “fire fountain”. The magma clots, if hot enough may coalesce upon landing to form a lava flow.

Pyroclastic deposits consist of pyroclasts which are not cemented together. Pyroclastic rocks (tuff) are pyroclastic deposits which have been lithified.


A Geological dike at Makhtesh Ramon, Negev, Israel

Figure 3. 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.[2]

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.[3]

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 4. 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 5. 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 6. 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 7. 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.[4] The geometry of large sill complexes in sedimentary basins has become clearer with the availability of 3D seismic reflection data.[5] Such data has shown that many sills have an overall saucer shape and that many others are at least in part transgressive.[6]

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.

Volcanic Landforms

A smoking volcano

Why is the Republic of Indonesia made of 17,508 islands?

Around the Pacific Rim is Indonesia, a nation built from the dotted volcanoes of an island arc. Indonesia is distinctive for its rich volcanic soil, tropical climate, tremendous biodiversity, and volcanoes. These volcanoes are in Java, Indonesia.

Landforms from Lava

Volcanoes and Vents

The most obvious landforms created by lava are volcanoes, most commonly as cinder cones, composite volcanoes, and shield volcanoes. Eruptions also take place through other types of vents, commonly from fissures (Figure 8). The eruptions that created the entire ocean floor are essentially fissure eruptions.

A fissure eruption on Mauna Loa in Hawaii travels toward Mauna Kea on the Big Island

Figure 8. A fissure eruption on Mauna Loa in Hawaii travels toward Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Lava Domes

Viscous lava flows slowly. If there is not enough magma or enough pressure to create an explosive eruption, the magma may form a lava dome. Because it is so thick, the lava does not flow far from the vent. (Figure 9).

Picture of lava domes

Figure 9. Lava domes are large, round landforms created by thick lava that does not travel far from the vent.

Lava flows often make mounds right in the middle of craters at the top of volcanoes, as seen in the Figure 10.

Lava domes forming in the crater of Mount St. Helens

Figure 10. Lava domes may form in the crater of composite volcanoes as at Mount St. Helens.

Lava Plateaus

A lava plateau forms when large amounts of fluid lava flow over an extensive area (Figure 11). When the lava solidifies, it creates a large, flat surface of igneous rock.

Layers of basalt created the Columbia Plateau, which is a lava plateau

Figure 11. Layer upon layer of basalt have created the Columbia Plateau, which covers more than 161,000 square kilometers (63,000 square miles) in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.


Lava creates new land as it solidifies on the coast or emerges from beneath the water (Figure 12).

Lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, creating new land

Figure 12. Lava flowing into the sea creates new land in Hawaii.

Over time the eruptions can create whole islands. The Hawaiian Islands are formed from shield volcano eruptions that have grown over the last 5 million years (Figure 13).

Satellite images is Hawaii, which was created by hotspot volcanism

Figure 13. The island of Hawaii was created by hotspot volcanism. You can see some of the volcanoes (both active and extinct) in this mosaic of false-color composite satellite images.

Landforms from Magma

Magma intrusions can create landforms. Shiprock in New Mexico is the neck of an old volcano that has eroded away (Figure 14). The volcanic neck is the remnant of the conduit the magma traveled up to feed an eruption.

Shiprock in New Mexico, which is the neck of an old volcano

Figure 14. The aptly named Shiprock in New Mexico.


  • Landforms created by lava include volcanoes, domes, and plateaus.
  • New land can be created by volcanic eruptions.
  • Landforms created by magma include volcanic necks and domes.


Blatt, Harvey and Robert J. Tracy (1996) Petrology: Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic, W.H.W. Freeman & Company; 2nd ed., pp. 26–29.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.

  1. Heiken, G. and Wohletz, K., 1985 Volcanic Ash, University of California Press;, pp. 246.
  2. Essentials of Geology, 3rd Ed, Stephen Marshak
  3. Pilkington, Mark and Walter R. Roest; Removing varying directional trends in aeromagnetic data, Geophysics, vol. 63 no. 2 (1998), pp. 446–453. abstract
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.