Other Volcanic Structures

Plugs (necks)

Congealed magma, along with fragmental volcanic and wallrock materials, can be preserved in the feeding conduits of a volcano upon cessation of activity. These preserved rocks form crudely cylindrical masses, from which project radiating dikes; they may be visualized as the fossil remains of the innards of a volcano (the so-called "volcanic plumbing system") and are referred to as volcanic plugs or necks. The igneous material in a plug may have a range of composition similar to that of associated lavas or ash, but may also include fragments and blocks of denser, coarser grained rocks-- higher in iron and magnesium, lower in silicon--thought to be samples of the Earth's deep crust or upper mantle plucked and transported by the ascending magma. Many plugs and necks are largely or wholly composed of fragmental volcanic material and of fragments of wallrock, which can be of any type. Plugs that bear a particularly strong imprint of explosive eruption of highly gas-charged magma are called diatremes or tuff-breccia.

Volcanic plugs are believed to overlie a body of magma which could be either still largely liquid or completely solid depending on the state of activity of the volcano. Plugs are known, or postulated, to be commonly funnel shaped and to taper downward into bodies increasingly elliptical in plan or elongated to dike-like forms. Typically, volcanic plugs and necks tend to be more resistant to erosion than their enclosing rock formations. Thus, after the volcano becomes inactive and deeply eroded, the exhumed plug may stand up in bold relief as an irregular, columnar structure. One of the best known and most spectacular diatremes in the United States is Ship Rock in New Mexico, which towers some 1,700 feet above the more deeply eroded surrounding plains. Volcanic plugs, including diatremes, are found elsewhere in the western United States and also in Germany, South Africa, Tanzania, and Siberia.

 Photograph of Ship Rock, New Mexico

 Ship Rock, San Juan County, New Mexico.


Also called "tuff cones," maars are shallow, flat-floored craters that scientists interpret have formed above diatremes as a result of a violent expansion of magmatic gas or steam; deep erosion of a maar presumably would expose a diatreme. Maars range in size from 200 to 6,500 feet across and from 30 to 650 feet deep, and most are commonly filled with water to form natural lakes. Most maars have low rims composed of a mixture of loose fragments of volcanic rock and rocks torn from the walls of the diatreme.

Maars occur in the western United States, in the Eifel region of Germany, and in other geologically young volcanic regions of the world. An excellent example of a maar is Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico, a shallow saline lake that occupies a flat-floored crater about 6,500 feet across and 400 feet deep. Its low rim is composed of loose pieces of basaltic lava and wallrocks (sandstone, shale, limestone) of the underlying diatreme, as well as random chunks of ancient crystalline rocks blasted upward from great depths.

 Photograph of Salt Lake Maar, New Mexico

 Zuni Salt Lake Maar, Catron County, New Mexico.

Nonvolcanic craters

Some well-exposed, nearly circular areas of intensely deformed sedimentary rocks, in which a central vent-like feature is surrounded by a ring-shaped depression, resemble volcanic structures in gross form. As no clear evidence of volcanic origin could be found in or near these structures, scientists initially described them as "cryptovolcanic," a term now rarely used. Recent studies have shown that not all craters are of volcanic origin. Impact craters, formed by collisions with the Earth of large meteorites, asteroids, or comets, share with volcanoes the imprints of violent origin, as evidenced by severe disruption, and even local melting, of rock. Fragments of meteorites or chemically detectable traces of extraterrestrial materials and indications of strong forces acting from above, rather than from below, distinguish impact from volcanic features.

Other possible explanations for these nonvolcanic craters include subsurface salt-dome intrusion (and subsequent dissolution and collapse caused by subsurface limestone dissolution and/or ground-water withdrawal; and collapse related to melting of glacial ice. An impressive example of an impact structure is Meteor Crater, Ariz., which is visited by thousands of tourists each year. This impact crater, 4,000 feet in diameter and 600 feet deep, was formed in the geologic past (probably 30,00050,000 years before present) by a meteorite striking the Earth at a speed of many thousands of miles per hour.

 Photograph of Meteor Crater, Arizona

 Meteor Crater, Arizona.

In addition to Meteor Crater, very fresh, morphologically distinct, impact craters are found at three sites near Odessa, Tex., as well as 10 or 12 other locations in the world. Of the more deeply eroded, less obvious, postulated impact structures, there are about ten well-established sites in the United States and perhaps 80 or 90 elsewhere in the world.


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