From G. F. Becker's and L. V. Pirsson's early enunciations linking the dynamics of magma chambers to the rock records of sills and plutons to this day, two features stand at the centre of nearly every magmatic process: solidification fronts and phenocrysts. The structure and behaviour of the envisioned solidification front, however, has been mostly that akin to non-silicate, non-multiply-saturated systems, which has led to confusion in appreciating its role in magmatic evolution. The common habit of intruding magmas to carry significant amounts of phenocrysts, which can lead to efficient fractionation, layering, and interstitial melt flow within extensive mush piles, when coupled with solidification fronts, allows a broad understanding of the processes leading to the rock records of sills and lava lakes. These same processes are fundamental to understanding all magmas.
The spatial manifestation of the liquidus and solidus is the Solidification Front (SF); all magmas, stationary or in transit, are encased by SFs. In the ideal case of an initially crystal-free, cooling magma, crystallinity increases from nucleation on the leading liquidus edge to a holocrystalline rock at the trailing solidus. The package of SF isotherms advances inward, thickening with time and, depending on location — roof, floor, or walls — and the initial crystallinity of the magma, is instrumental in controlling magmatic evolution. Bimodal volcanism as well as much of the structure of the oceanic crust may arise from the behaviour of SFs.
In mafic magmas, somewhere near a crystallinity (N) of 55% (vol), depending on the phase assemblage, the SF changes from a viscous fluid (suspension (0<N<25) and mush (25<N<55%)) to an elastic crystalline network (rigid crust (55<N<100%)) of some strength containing interstitial residual melt. With thickening of the roofward SF of some mafic magmas, the weight of the leading, viscous portion repeatedly tears the crust near N ∼ 55–60%, efficiently segregating the local residual melt into zones of interdigitating silicic lenses. This is SF instability (SFI), a process of possible importance in continental crust initiation and evolution, in producing silicic segregations in oceanic crust, and in recording the inability of the viscous part of the upper SF ever to detach wholly in typical (<∼ 1 km) sheet-like magmas. These granophyric and pegmatitic segregations, individually reaching 1–2 m in thickness and 30–50 m in length, form thick (∼ 50–75 m) zones that can be misconstrued as sandwich horizons where the last liquids might have accumulated. In effectively splitting the magma chemically and spatially, SFI is, in essence, a form of chaos (i.e. silicic chaos).
Differentiation of initially crystal-free, stationary magmas is limited to processes occurring within SFs, which operate in competition with the rate of inward advancement of solidification. Local processes operating on characteristic time scales longer than the time for the SF to advance a distance equal to its own thickness are suppressed. Enormous increases in viscosity outward within the viscous, leading portion of the SF efficiently partition the distribution of melt accessible to eruption. Eruptible melts lie essentially inward of the SF and are thus severely restricted in silica enrichment. The silica-enriched SFI melts are thus generally inaccessible to collection and eviction unless the host SF is reprocessed or “burned back” through, respectively, later regional magmatism or massive, late-stage re-injection. And because of large viscosity contrasts between SFI melts and host basalts, once freed, SFI melts are literally impossible to homogenize back into the system and may collect and compact against the roof to form large silicic masses. Unusually voluminous, bulbous masses of silicic granophyre present along, and sometimes warping, the roofs of large diabase sills may reflect collections of remobilized blobs of SFI melts. These bulbous masses may be later added to the continental crust through solid state creep.
In sheets made of phenocryst-rich, singly saturated magma, most phenocrysts are able through settling or floating to avoid capture by the advancing SFs. Significant differentiation is possible through extensive settling of initial phenocrysts and upward leakage of interstitial residual melt from the associated cumulate pile, which over-thickens the lower SF, greatly tipping the competitive edge against suppression of melt leakage by advancing solidification. Dense interstitial melts may similarly drain from roofward cumulates of light phenocrysts. The variation in crystal size and modal abundance in these cumulate piles are intimate records of prior crystallization, transport, and filling.
Magmas in transit erode SFs and thoroughly charge the magma with crystals, facilitating fractionation and differentiation, especially if the body occasionally comes to rest. The key to protracted differentiation through fractional crystallization is not crystallization in stationary, closed chambers, but the repeated transport and chambering of magma or the periodic resupply to chambers of phenocryst-rich magma. This is punctuated differentiation, which may be the general case. Close corollaries are that thick, closed sheets of initially crystal-free, multiply-saturated magma undergo precious little overall differentiation, and that deciphering the sequence and crystallinity, including in transit phenocryst entrainment, growth, and sorting, of the filling events is central to unravelling intrusive history.
Variations in temperature, whether on phase diagrams or in actual magmas, are intrinsically linked to commensurate variations in space and time in magmatic systems. The spectrum of all physical and chemical processes associated with magma is accordingly strongly partitioned in space and time.
The idea of a magma chamber as a vat of low crystallinity melt crystallizing everywhere within and differentiating through crystal settling is unrealistic. A magma chamber formed of any number of crystal-laden inputs, encased by inward-propagating, dynamic solidification fronts, and where significant differentiation is tied to the dynamics of late-stage, interstitial melt within extensive mush piles is more in accord with the rock record.