What physical parameters determine the scale of columnar jointing?

  • What makes the columns thinner or thicker?
  • What makes them taller or shorter?
  • What causes the variation in a given site?
  • What makes the polygons more/less regular?

I'm guessing factors include internal temperature, cooling timescales, composition, etc, but the literature seems to be a little uncertain.

Related questions and answers on StackExchange emphasize the formation processes, but they do not directly address the scaling:

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not an answer but I have observed columnar basalt in many locations, it seems to me that the larger columns are on thicker and deeper sections on the original source flows. I would expect that these areas cool slower. It would not surprise me if the composition of the flows also have an influence. $\endgroup$
    – user824
    May 15, 2019 at 23:55

1 Answer 1


There is a paper about this in the Bulletin of Volcanology (Hetényi et al. 2012).

Cooling rate seems to be the main parameter controlling column size (faster cooling yielding to thinner columns). According to the authors, cooling rate is itself controlled by two non-independent factors: (1) the geometry of the lava body, and (2) the chemical composition of the lava.

(1) Geometry of the lava body influences the boundary conditions for cooling, depending on the emplacement setting (air, host rock, ice...). In the case of a lava lake (figure 2b), lava close to the lake walls will cool faster than lava at the centre of the lake, resulting in thinner columns. Thickness also plays a major role, as shown by figure 10: thicker lava bodies cool slowly, generating thicker columns.

(2) Chemistry plays a role (figure 11): felsic (SiO2-rich) lavas tend to have thicker columns than mafic lavas. It seems a bit counter-intuitive, as felsic lavas are usually emplaced at a "low" temperature and should thus cool faster than a basalt emplaced at 1200 °C... But felsic lavas are more viscous and tend to form thicker flows -> back to (1).


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