Thermal and mechanical models of magma reservoir growth need to be reconciled with deformation patterns and structural relationships observed at active magma systems. Geophysical observations provide a series of short time-scale snap-shots (10 0–10 2 years) of the long-term growth of magmatic bodies (10 3–10 6 years). In this paper, we first review evidence for the growth of magmatic systems along structural features and the associated deformation patterns. We then define three distinct growth stages, (1) aligned melt pockets, (2) coalesced reservoirs, (3) highly evolved systems, which can be distinguished using short-term surface observations. We use two-dimensional thermal models to provide first-order constraints on the time scales and conditions associated with coalescence of individual magma bodies into large-scale reservoirs. We find that closely spaced intrusions (less than 1 km apart) can develop combined viscoelastic shells over time scales of 10s kyr and form laterally extensive mush systems over time scales of 10–100 kyr. The highest temperatures and melt fractions occur during a period of thermal relaxation after melt injection has ceased, suggesting that caldera-forming eruptions may preferentially occur long after the main intrusive activity. The coalescence of eruptible melt-rich chambers only occurs for the highest melt supply rates and deepest systems. Thus, these models indicate that, in most cases, conductive heat transfer alone is not sufficient for a full coalescence of magma chambers and that other processes involving mechanical ruptures and mush mobilization are necessary; individual melt lenses can remain isolated for long periods within growing mush systems, and will only mix during eruption or other catastrophic events. The long-term history of the magmatic system is therefore critical in determining rheological structure and hence short-term behaviour. This framework for the development of magmatic systems in the continental crust provides a mechanical basis for the interpretation of unrest at the world's largest volcanoes.
This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue ‘Magma reservoir architecture and dynamics'.