Reexamining the Potential to Classify Lava Flows From the Fractality of Their Margins

E. I. Schaefer, C. W. Hamilton, C. D. Neish, M. M. Sori, A. M. Bramson, S. P. Beard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Can fractal analysis of a lava flow's margin enable classification of the lava's morphologic type (e.g., pāhoehoe)? Such classifications would provide insights into the rheology and dynamics of the flow when it was emplaced. The potential to classify lava flows from remotely-sensed data would particularly benefit the analysis of flows that are inaccessible, including flows on other planetary bodies. The technique's current interpretive framework depends on three assumptions: (1) measured margin fractality is scale-invariant; (2) morphologic types can be uniquely distinguished based on measured margin fractality; and (3) modification of margin fractality by topography, including substrate slope and confinement, would be minimal or independently recognizable. We critically evaluate these assumptions at meter scales (1–10 m) using 15 field-collected flow margin intervals from a wide variety of morphologic types in Hawaiʻi, Iceland, and Idaho. Among the 12 margin intervals that satisfy the current framework's suitability criteria (e.g., geomorphic freshness, shallowly-sloped substrates), we show that five exhibit notably scale-dependent fractality and all five from lava types other than ‘a‘ā or pāhoehoe would be classified as one or both of those types at some scales. Additionally, an ‘a‘ā flow on a 15° slope (Mauna Ulu, Hawaiʻi) and a spiny pāhoehoe flow confined by a stream bank (Holuhraun, Iceland) exhibit significantly depressed fractalities but lack diagnostic signatures for these modifications. We therefore conclude that all three assumptions of the current framework are invalid at meter scales and propose a new framework to leverage the potential of the underlying fractal technique while acknowledging these complexities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020JB020949
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Fractal
  • geometry
  • lava
  • morphology
  • planetary
  • scale-dependence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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