Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Volcanology Research Spotlight

An Improved Model of How Magma Moves Through the Crust

Researchers have developed a new numerical model that can, for the first time, solve for both the speed and the path of a propagating dike.

Source: Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth


Volcanic eruptions of basalt are fed by intrusions of magma, called dikes, which advance through Earth’s crust for a few hours or days before reaching the surface. Although many never make it that far, those that do can pose a serious threat to people and infrastructure, so forecasting when and where a dike will erupt is important to assessing volcanic hazards.

However, the migration of magma below a volcano is complex, and its simulation is numerically demanding, meaning that efforts to model dike propagation have so far been limited to models that can quantify either a dike’s velocity or its trajectory but not both simultaneously. To overcome this limitation, Pinel et al. have developed a hybrid numerical model that quantifies both by dividing the simulations into two separate steps, one that calculates a two-dimensional trajectory and a second that runs a one-dimensional propagation model along that path.

The results indicate that the migration of magma is heavily influenced by surface loading—the addition or removal of weight on Earth’s surface—such as that caused by the construction of a volcano or its partial removal via a massive landslide or caldera eruption. The team confirmed previous research that showed that increasing surface load attracts magma while also reducing its velocity, whereas unloading diverts much of the magma.

To test their approach, the team applied their model to a lateral eruption that occurred on Italy’s Mount Etna in July 2001. The eruption was fed by two dikes, including one that in its final stages clearly slowed down and bent toward the west while still 1–2 kilometers below the surface. The results showed that the two-step model was capable of simulating that dike’s velocity and trajectory and thus offers a new means of constraining the local stress field, which partially controls these properties.

In the future, report the authors, more complex versions of this model that incorporate information on local topography and magmatic properties could be integrated with real-time geophysical data to improve forecasts of when and where a propagating dike could erupt at the surface. (Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth,, 2017)

—Terri Cook, Freelance Writer

Citation: Cook, T. (2017), An improved model of how magma moves through the crust, Eos, 98, Published on 18 April 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0