What is basalt?
gabbro in composition but the difference lies in the grain size of the two rocks.
Basalt is the most abundant bedrock forms much of the oceanic crust but in continental crust basalt can be in lava flows and flood basalt.
Composition of basalt
Mineral composition of basalt consists of pyroxene, plagioclase and olivine with minor content of glass in ground mass and in porphyritic the phenocrysts will be any of olivine, pyroxene or plagioclase.
Definition of basalt
By definition, basalt is an aphanitic (fine-grained) igneous rock with generally 45-55% silica (SiO2) and less than 10% feldspathoid by volume, and where at least 65% of the rock is feldspar in the form of plagioclase. It is the most common volcanic rock type on Earth, being a key component of oceanic crust as well as the principal volcanic rock in many mid-oceanic islands, including Iceland, Réunion and the islands of Hawaii. Basalt commonly features a very fine-grained or glassy matrix interspersed with visible mineral grains. The average density is 3.0 gm/cm3.
Basalt is defined by its mineral content and texture, and physical descriptions without mineralogical context may be unreliable in some circumstances. Basalt is usually grey to black in colour, but rapidly weathers to brown or rust-red due to oxidation of its mafic (iron-rich) minerals into hematite and other iron oxides and hydroxides. Although usually characterised as "dark", basaltic rocks exhibit a wide range of shading due to regional geochemical processes. Due to weathering or high concentrations of plagioclase, some basalt can be quite light-coloured, superficially resembling andesite to untrained eyes. Basalt has a fine-grained mineral texture due to the molten rock cooling too quickly for large mineral crystals to grow; it is often porphyritic, containing larger crystals (phenocrysts) formed prior to the extrusion that brought the magma to the surface, embedded in a finer-grained matrix. These phenocrysts usually are of olivine or a calcium-rich plagioclase, which have the highest melting temperatures of the typical minerals that can crystallise from the melt.
scoria. This texture forms when dissolved gases come out of solution and form bubbles as the magma decompresses as it reaches the surface, yet are trapped as the erupted lava hardens before the gases can escape.
The term basalt is at times applied to shallow intrusive rocks with a composition typical of basalt, but rocks of this composition with a phaneritic (coarser) groundmass are generally referred to as diabase (also called dolerite) or, when more coarse-grained (crystals over 2 mm across), as gabbro. Gabbro is often marketed commercially as "black granite."
In the Hadean, Archean, and early Proterozoic eras of Earth's history, the chemistry of erupted magmas was significantly different from today's, due to immature crustal and asthenosphere differentiation. These ultra-mafic volcanic rocks, with silica (SiO2) contents below 45% are usually classified as komatiites.
Types of basalts
- Tholeiitic basalt is relatively rich in silica and poor in sodium. Included in this category are most basalts of the ocean floor, most large oceanic islands, and continental flood basalts such as the Columbia River Plateau.
- High and low titanium basalts. Basalt rocks are in some cases classified after their titanium (Ti) content in High-Ti and Low-Ti varieties. High-Ti and Low-Ti basalts have been distinguished in the Paraná and Etendeka traps and the Emeishan Traps.
- Mid-ocean ridge basalt (MORB) is a tholeiitic basalt commonly erupted only at ocean ridges and is characteristically low in incompatible elements.
- E-MORB, enriched MORB
- N-MORB,normal MORB
- D-MORB, depleted MORB
- High-alumina basalt may be silica-undersaturated or -oversaturated (see normative mineralogy). It has greater than 17% alumina (Al2O3) and is intermediate in composition between tholeiite and alkali basalt; the relatively alumina-rich composition is based on rocks without phenocrysts of plagioclase.
- Alkali basalt is relatively poor in silica and rich in sodium. It is silica-undersaturated and may contain feldspathoids, alkali feldspar and phlogopite.
- Boninite is a high-magnesium form of basalt that is erupted generally in back-arc basins, distinguished by its low titanium content and trace-element composition.
- Ocean island basalt
- Lunar basalt
Environments forming basaltsThe environments at which basalt is formed are
- Oceanic divergent boundaries
- Oceanic hotspots
- Mantle plumes and hotspots beneath continental crust
Oceanic divergent boundaries
Most of Earth's basalt is produced at divergent plate boundaries on the mid-ocean ridge system. Here convection currents deliver hot rock from deep in the mantle. This hot rock melts as the divergent boundary pulls apart, and the molten rock erupts onto the sea floor. These submarine fissure eruptions often produce pillow basalt as shown in the image on this page.
The active mid-ocean ridges host repeated fissure eruptions. Most of this activity is unnoticed because these boundaries are under great depths of water. At these deep locations, any steam, ash, or gas produced is absorbed by the water column and does not reach the surface. Earthquake activity is the only signal to humans that many of these deep ocean ridge eruptions provide. However, Iceland is a location where a mid-ocean ridge has been lifted above sea level. There, people can directly observe this volcanic activity.
Another location where significant amounts of basalt are produced is above oceanic hotspots. These are locations where a small plume of hot rock rises up through the mantle from a hotspot on Earth's core. The Hawaiian Islands are an example of where basaltic volcanoes have been built above an oceanic hotspot.
Basalt production at these locations begins with an eruption on the ocean floor. If the hotspot is sustained, repeated eruptions can build the volcanic cone larger and larger until it becomes high enough to become an island. All of the islands in the Hawaiian Island chain were built up from basalt eruptions on the sea floor.
The island that we know today as "Hawaii" is thought to be between 300,000 and 600,000 years old. It began as an eruption on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic cone grew as recurrent eruptions built up layer after layer of basalt flows. About 100,000 years ago it is thought to have grown tall enough to emerge from the ocean as an island.
Today it consists of five overlapping volcanoes. Kilauea is the most active of these volcanoes. It has been in almost continuous eruption since January, 1983. Basalt flows from Kilauea have extruded over one cubic mile of lava, which currently covers about 48 square miles of land. These flows have travelled over seven miles to reach the ocean, covering highways, homes and entire subdivisions that were in their path.
Mantle plumes and hotspots below continents
The third basalt-forming environment is a continental environment where a mantle plume or hotspot delivers enormous amounts of basaltic lava through the continental crust and up to Earth's surface. These eruptions can be from either vents or fissures. They have produced the largest basalt flows on the continents. The eruptions can occur repeatedly over millions of years, producing layer after layer of basalt stacked in a vertical sequence.
The Columbia River Flood Basalt in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are an example of extensive flood basalt on land (see map below). Other examples include the Emeishan Traps of China, the Deccan Traps of India, the Keweenawan Lavas of the Lake Superior region, the Etendeka Basalts of Namibia, the Karroo Basalt of South Africa, and the Siberian Traps of Russia. (The word "traps" is derived from the Swedish word for "stairs," which describes the outcrop profile of these layered basalt deposits.
Petrology of basalt
The mineralogy of basalt is characterised by a preponderance of calcic plagioclase feldspar and pyroxene. Olivine can also be a significant constituent. Accessory minerals present in relatively minor amounts include iron oxides and iron-titanium oxides, such as magnetite, ulvospinel, and ilmenite. Because of the presence of such oxide minerals, basalt can acquire strong magnetic signatures as it cools, and paleomagnetic studies have made extensive use of basalt.
In tholeiitic basalt, pyroxene (augite and orthopyroxene or pigeonite) and calcium-rich plagioclase are common phenocryst minerals. Olivine may also be a phenocryst, and when present, may have rims of pigeonite. The groundmass contains interstitial quartz or tridymite or cristobalite. Olivine tholeiite has augite and orthopyroxene or pigeonite with abundant olivine, but olivine may have rims of pyroxene and is unlikely to be present in the groundmass. Ocean floor basalt, erupted originally at mid-ocean ridges, are known as MORB (mid-ocean ridge basalt) and are characteristically low in incompatible elements.
Alkali basalt typically have mineral assemblages that lack orthopyroxene but contain olivine. Feldspar phenocrysts typically are labradorite to andesine in composition. Augite is rich in titanium compared to augite in tholeiitic basalt. Minerals such as alkali feldspar, leucite, nepheline, sodalite, phlogopite mica, and apatite may be present in the groundmass.
Basalt has high liquidus and solidus temperatures values at the Earth's surface are near or above 1200 °C (liquidus) and near or below 1000 °C (solidus); these values are higher than those of other common igneous rocks.
The majority of tholeiites are formed at approximately 50-100 km depth within the mantle. Many alkali basalt may be formed at greater depths, perhaps as deep as 150-200 km. The origin of high-alumina basalt continues to be controversial, with disagreement over whether it is a primary melt or derived from other basalt types by fraction.
Morphology and textures
The shape, structure and texture of a basalt is diagnostic of how and where it erupted whether into the sea, in an explosive cinder eruption or as creeping pahoehoe lava flows, the classic image of Hawaiian basalt eruptions.
Basalt that erupts under open air (that is, subaerially) forms three distinct types of lava or volcanic deposits: scoria; ash or cinder (breccia); and lava flows.
Basalt in the tops of subaerial lava flows and cinder cones will often be highly vesiculate, imparting a lightweight "frothy" texture to the rock. Basaltic cinders are often red, coloured by oxidised iron from weathered iron-rich minerals such as pyroxene.
ʻAʻ types of blocky, cinder and breccia flows of thick, viscous basaltic lava are common in Hawaii. Pāhoehoe is a highly fluid, hot form of basalt which tends to form thin aprons of molten lava which fill up hollows and sometimes forms lava lakes. Lava tubes are common features of pahoehoe eruptions.
Basaltic tuff or pyroclastic rocks are rare but not unknown. Usually basalt is too hot and fluid to build up sufficient pressure to form explosive lava eruptions but occasionally this will happen by trapping of the lava within the volcanic throat and buildup of volcanic gases. Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano erupted in this way in the 19th century, as did Mount Tarawera, New Zealand in its violent 1886 eruption. Maar volcanoes are typical of small basalt tuffs, formed by explosive eruption of basalt through the crust, forming an apron of mixed basalt and wall rock breccia and a fan of basalt tuff further out from the volcano.
Amygdaloidal structure is common in relict vesicles and beautifully crystallised species of zeolites, quartz or calcite are frequently found.
During the cooling of a thick lava flow, contraction joints or fractures form. If a flow cools relatively rapidly, significant contraction forces build up. While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it can't easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form; the extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns. These structures are predominantly hexagonal in cross-section, but polygons with three to twelve or more sides can be observed. The size of the columns depends loosely on the rate of cooling; very rapid cooling may result in very small (<1 cm diameter) columns, while slow cooling is more likely to produce large columns.
When basalt erupts underwater or flows into the sea, contact with the water quenches the surface and the lava forms a distinctive pillow shape, through which the hot lava breaks to form another pillow. This "pillow" texture is very common in underwater basaltic flows and is diagnostic of an underwater eruption environment when found in ancient rocks. Pillows typically consist of a fine-grained core with a glassy crust and have radial jointing. The size of individual pillows varies from 10 cm up to several meters.
When pahoehoe lava enters the sea it usually forms pillow basalt. However, when a'a enters the ocean it forms a littoral cone, a small cone-shaped accumulation of tuffaceous debris formed when the blocky a'a lava enters the water and explodes from built-up steam.
The island of Surtsey in the Atlantic Ocean is a basalt volcano which breached the ocean surface in 1963. The initial phase of Surtsey's eruption was highly explosive, as the magma was quite wet, causing the rock to be blown apart by the boiling steam to form a tuff and cinder cone. This has subsequently moved to a typical pahoehoe-type behaviour.
Volcanic glass may be present, particularly as rinds on rapidly chilled surfaces of lava flows, and is commonly (but not exclusively) associated with underwater eruptions.
Pillow basalt is also produced by some subglacial volcanic eruptions.
Basaltic rock are used as a crushed material for construction purposes as an aggregate and it can also be used as dimension stone. Crushed basalt is used for road base, concrete aggregate, asphalt pavement aggregate, railroad ballast, filter stone in drain fields, and may other purposes. Basalt is also cut into dimension stone. Thin slabs of basalt are cut and sometimes polished for use as floor tiles, building veneer, monuments, and other stone objects.