The Dominant Factors Shaping Lava Viscosity: Unraveling the Key Influences

Welcome to this technical article on the fascinating topic of lava viscosity and the factors that influence it. Lava, the molten rock that flows from volcanoes during eruptions, has varying degrees of viscosity. The viscosity of lava plays a crucial role in determining its behavior and the hazards it poses. In this article, we will examine the primary factors that influence lava viscosity and shed light on the complex dynamics of volcanic eruptions.

Chemical composition

The chemical composition of lava is one of the most important factors influencing its viscosity. Lava is composed primarily of silicate minerals, such as basalt, andesite, and rhyolite, with varying amounts of dissolved gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide. The specific chemical composition of the lava determines the strength and connectivity of the atomic bonds within the molten rock, thus affecting its flow properties.
In general, lavas with higher silica contents, such as rhyolitic lavas, tend to have higher viscosities than basaltic lavas, which have lower silica contents. The presence of silica tetrahedra in silicate minerals creates a more cohesive and viscous lava matrix, which impedes magma flow. In contrast, basaltic lavas, with their lower silica content, have lower viscosities and can flow more easily.


The temperature of lava has a significant effect on its viscosity. As lava cools, its viscosity increases, which affects its flowability. Higher temperatures correspond to lower viscosities, making the lava easier to flow. Conversely, lower temperatures result in higher viscosities, making the lava more resistant to flow.

It is important to note that the temperature range of lava can vary significantly depending on its composition. Basaltic lavas, which are more common in effusive eruptions, typically have higher temperatures and lower viscosities, allowing them to flow rapidly over long distances. On the other hand, more viscous lavas, such as andesitic and rhyolitic lavas, tend to have lower temperatures and flow more slowly.

Gas content

The presence of dissolved gases in magma plays a crucial role in determining its viscosity. As magma rises to the surface during an eruption, the drop in pressure causes previously dissolved gases to dissolve and form gas bubbles within the molten rock. The accumulation and growth of these gas bubbles affects the rheology of the lava.

Lavas with higher gas contents tend to have lower viscosities due to the lubricating effect of the gas bubbles. The gas bubbles act as a reducing agent, breaking the atomic bonds within the lava and reducing its overall viscosity. Conversely, lavas with lower gas contents have higher viscosities because the absence of gas bubbles allows the atomic bonds to remain intact, impeding flow.

Crystal content

The presence of crystals in the lava can significantly affect its viscosity. As lava cools and solidifies, minerals can crystallize and grow within the molten rock. The size, shape, and distribution of these crystals affect the rheological properties of the lava.
In general, lavas with higher crystal content tend to have higher viscosities. The crystals act as obstacles to flow, impeding the movement of the molten rock. In addition, the interconnected network of crystals can increase the internal friction of the lava, further increasing its viscosity. On the other hand, lavas with lower crystal content have lower viscosities and can flow more easily.

Shear Rate and Stress

The shear rate and stress to which the lava is subjected also affect its viscosity. Shear rate is the rate at which adjacent layers of lava move relative to each other, while shear stress is the force per unit area acting parallel to the direction of flow. The interaction between shear rate and stress affects the resistance of the lava to flow.

At low shear rates and stresses, lava tends to have higher viscosities because the slower movement allows for the reformation of atomic bonds and increased internal friction. In contrast, at high shear rates and stresses, the lava experiences a decrease in viscosity due to the breaking of atomic bonds and reduced internal friction.
It is worth noting that the shear rate and stress experienced by the lava can vary depending on the specific volcanic activity and eruption style. Effusive eruptions, characterized by relatively gentle lava flows, typically involve lower shear rates and stresses, resulting in higher viscosities. Explosive eruptions, on the other hand, involve rapid magma ascent and high shear rates and stresses, resulting in lower viscosities.

In summary, the viscosity of lava is influenced by several factors, including its chemical composition, temperature, gas content, crystal content, and shear rate/stress. Understanding these factors is critical to predicting the behavior of volcanic eruptions and assessing the associated hazards. By studying lava viscosity, scientists and volcanologists can gain valuable insights into the dynamics of volcanic systems and contribute to the development of effective mitigation strategies for volcanic hazards.


What has the biggest effect on the viscosity of lava?

The silica content of the lava has the biggest effect on its viscosity. Lava with high silica content tends to be more viscous, while lava with low silica content is less viscous.

How does the temperature affect the viscosity of lava?

Temperature plays a significant role in determining the viscosity of lava. As the temperature of lava increases, its viscosity decreases, making it more fluid. Conversely, as the temperature decreases, the lava becomes more viscous and flows slower.

Does the gas content affect the viscosity of lava?

Yes, the gas content in lava can influence its viscosity. When lava contains a high concentration of dissolved gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, the presence of these gases can decrease the lava’s viscosity, making it more fluid.

What role does the composition of minerals play in the viscosity of lava?

The composition of minerals in lava can impact its viscosity. Lava containing minerals like olivine and pyroxene tends to have lower viscosity, while lava with higher concentrations of minerals like quartz and feldspar has higher viscosity.

How does the cooling rate affect the viscosity of lava?

The cooling rate of lava has a direct effect on its viscosity. When lava cools rapidly, it tends to have higher viscosity, resulting in a thicker, more sluggish flow. In contrast, slow cooling allows the lava to have lower viscosity, making it more fluid.