Exploration of the 1891 Foerstner submarine vent site (Pantelleria, Italy): Insights into the formation of basaltic balloons

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On October 17, 1891, a submarine eruption started at Foerstner volcano located within the Pantelleria Rift of the Strait of Sicily (Italy). Activity occurred for a period of 1 week from an eruptive vent located 4 km northwest of the island of Pantelleria at a water depth of 250 m. The eruption produced lava balloons that discharged gas at the surface and eventually sank to the seafloor. Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) video footage and high-resolution multi-beam mapping of the Foerstner vent site were used to create a geologic map of the AD 1891 deposits and conduct the first detailed study of the source area associated with this unusual type of submarine volcanism. The main Foerstner vent consists of two overlapping circular mounds with a total volume of 6.3 × 105 m3 and relief of 60 m. It is dominantly constructed of clastic scoriaceous deposits with some interbedded pillow lavas. Petrographic and geochemical analyses of Foerstner samples by X-ray fluorescence and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry reveal that the majority of the deposits are vesicular, hypocrystalline basanite scoria that display porphyritic, hyaloophitic, and vitrophyric textures. An intact lava balloon recovered from the seafloor consists of a large interior gas cavity surrounded by a thin lava shell comprising two distinct layers: a thin, oxidized, quenched crust surrounding the exterior of the balloon and a dark gray, tachylite layer lying beneath it. Ostwald ripening is proposed to be the dominant bubble growth mechanism of four representative Foerstner scoria samples as inferred by vesicle size distributions. Characterization of the diversity of deposit facies observed at Foerstner in conjunction with quantitative rock texture analysis indicates that submarine Strombolian-like activity is the most likely mechanism for the formation of lava balloons. The deposit facies observed at the main Foerstner vent are very similar to those produced by other known submarine Strombolian eruptions (short pillow flow lobes, large scoriaceous clasts, spatter-like vent facies). Balloons were likely formed from the rapid cooling of extremely vesicular magma fragments as a result of a gas-rich frothy magma source. The exterior of these fragments hyperquenched forming a vesicular glassy shell that acted as an insulating layer preventing magmatic gas in its interior from escaping and thus allowing flotation as densities reached less than 1,000 kg/m3. We believe that lava balloons are a common eruptive product, as the conditions required to generate these products are likely to be present in a variety of submarine volcanic environments. Additionally, the facies relationships observed at Foerstner may be used as a paleoenvironmental indicator for modern and ancient basaltic shallow submarine eruptions because of the relatively narrow depth range over which they likely occur (200-400 m). © 2014 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

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Bulletin of Volcanology