Evoluton of Polygonal Fracture Patterns in Lava Flows

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Science  29 Jan 1988:
Vol. 239, Issue 4839, pp. 471-476
DOI: 10.1126/science.239.4839.471


Cooling-induced fractures, also known as columnar joints, divide basaltic lava flows into prismatic columns with polygonal cross sections. The regularity and symmetry of the fracture patterns have long fascinated naturalists. In view of the recent selection of two candidate nuclear waste sites in areas where polygonally fractured volcanic rocks are located, a better understanding of the fracture patterns is required. Field data indicate that the tetragonal networks at flow surfaces evolve systematically to hexagonal networks as the joints grow inward during solidification of lava. This evolution occurs by the gradual change of most orthogonal intersections to nonorthogonal intersections of about 120 degrees. The surface features and intersection geometries of columnar joints show that joint segments at any given level form sequentially yet harmoniously.