Tephra vary in chemistry from basaltic (low-silica) through to rhyolitic
(high-silica) compositions, reflecting the chemical variation typical of
Because the geological settings of different volcanic centres differ from one another in detail, even within localised regions, magma and hence tephra compositions produced by different volcanoes have distinct ranges of chemical composition. This chemical distinctiveness may extend to sequences of tephras erupted by an individual volcano.
Comparison of tephra layers from sources including peats or lacustrine deposits with well-characterised proximal tephrostratigraphies from possible source volcanoes enables the identification of specific eruptions within the stratigraphic record. For eruptions that have been dated by absolute methods such as C-14, or by historical observation, the ages of individual layers can be used to create a tephrochronological framework within an area or wider region. The chronological resolution within a tephrostratigraphic sequence is limited only by the accuracy and precision of the absolute dating methods used for individual tephra layers.
Geochemical fingerprinting of tephras to match them with source eruptions can be achieved very reliably and rapidly by EPMA. Discrimination between the majority of tephra layers is usually achieved easily by analysis of the 10 major and minor elements present in the magma (Na, Mg, Al, Si, P, K, Ca, Ti, Fe, Mn), with each analysis requiring 6 minutes or less. Thus geochemical fingerprinting of tephra horizons by EPMA represents a very precise and cost effective dating tool.
Recent developments in tephra analysis at Edinburgh (Hayward, 2012) using our Cameca SX100 instrument - ideally configured for tephra analysis - have enabled analysis of very fine-grained, distal tephra grains down to <10 microns across without chemical modification by the electron beam during analysis.
With the collection of relatively large numbers of analyses (at least 50) it can be possible to differentiate between chemically similar tephras from a single volcano and hence to produce very high resolution tephrostratigraphic correlations. Where this is impractical (e.g. where limited tephra grains are available), discrimination of geochemically similar sequences may be achieved via measurement of trace elements such as Rb, REE and U by laser ablation ICP-MS (beam diameters 4-10 microns) or SIMS (beam diameter around 20 microns).
Analysis of the volatile elements S, Cl and F is routine by EPMA at Edinburgh and with very good sensitivity. Such measurements permit understanding of the degassing of sulphur and halogens from magma during ascent from source regions to final eruption and are essential to the understanding of atmospheric and environmental impacts caused by volcanism. Volatiles such as water and carbon dioxide can be measured by SIMS.
Various on-line databases of tephra composition and eruption dates, compiled from published literature, are available to assist with the identification of source volcanoes and individual eruptions, (e.g. Tephrabase).