Some of the substances emitted by volcanic vents, such as hydrogen and sulphuretted hydrogen, are inflammable, and when they issue at a high temperature these gases burst into flame the moment that they come into contact with the air. Hence, when volcanic fissures are watched at night, faint lambent flames are frequently seen playing over them, and sometimes these flames are brilliantly colored, through the presence of small quantities of certain metallic oxides. Such volcanic flames, however, are scarcely ever strongly luminous, and the red, glowing light which is observed over volcanic mountains in eruption is due to quite another cause. What is usually taken for flame during a volcanic eruption is simply, as we have before stated, the glowing light of the surface of a mass of red-hot lava reflected from the cloud of vapor and dust in the air, much as the lights of a city are reflected from the water vapor of the atmosphere during a night of fog.
Besides the volatile substances which issue from volcanic vents, mingling with the atmosphere or condensing upon their sides, there are many solid materials ejected, and these may accumulate around the orifice’s till they build up mountains of vast dimensions, like Etna, Teneriffe, and Chimborazo. Some of these solid materials are evidently fragments of the rock-masses, through which the volcanic fissure has been rent; these fragments have been carried upwards by the force of the steam-blast and scattered over the sides of the volcano. But the principal portion of the solid materials ejected from volcanic orifices consists of matter which has been extruded from sources far beneath the surface, in highly-heated and fluid or semi-fluid condition.
It is to these materials that the name of “lavas” is properly applied. Lavas present a general resemblance to the slags and clinkers which are formed in our furnaces and brick-kilns, and consist, like them, of various stony substances which have been more or less perfectly fused. When we come to study the chemical composition and the microscopical structure of lavas, however, we shall find that there are many respects in which they differ entirely from these artificial products, they consisting chiefly of felspar, or of this substance in association with augite or hornblende. In texture they may be stony, glassy, resin-like, vesicular or cellular and light in weight, as in the case of pumice or scoria.
The steam and other gases rising through liquid lava are apt to produce bubbles, yielding a surface froth or foam. This froth varies greatly in character according to the nature of the material from which it is formed. In the majority of cases the lavas consist of a mass of crystals floating in a liquid magma, and the distension of such a mass by the escape of steam from its midst gives rise to the formation of the rough cindery-looking material to which the