Complex chemical reactions take place when basalt glass transforms into palagonite. Cations are released from the glass and in their place the glass binds to water causing the iron to oxidize. The cations, particularly Si, Al, Ca, Na and Mg, can then form cavity fillings in the rock. A total of ten new kinds of newly formed minerals have been discovered in the palagonite tuffs in Surtsey. The most common are analsime, phillipsite, tobermotite, smektite and anhydrite.
The Surtsey eruption has led to a better understanding of how the palagonite tuff mountains were formed in the Ice Age. Research on the alteration of tephra has yielded important information on palagonization. In this regard, Surtsey can be compared to a gigantic laboratory. The latest discovery in these research projects is from a study of microorganisms in the rock. Results show that certain bacteria species dissolve the basalt glass in the tephra, thereby increasing the rate of palagonite formation.