Plate tectonics activity

Plate-Tectonic Context of Igneous Activity 

Melting occurs only in special locations where conditions lead to decompression, addition of volatiles, and/or heat transfer. The conditions that lead to melting and, therefore, to igneous activity, can develop in four geologic settings: (figure below) (1) along volcanic arcs bordering oceanic trenches; (2) at hot spots; (3) within continental rifts; (4) along mid-ocean ridges. Let’s look more carefully at melting and igneous rock production at these  settings, in the context of plate-tectonics theory, with a focus on the types of igneous rocks that may form in each setting.

The tectonic setting of igneous rocks

Products of Subduction 

A chain of volcanoes, called a volcanic arc (or just an arc), forms on the overriding plate, adjacent to the deep-ocean trenches that mark convergent plate boundaries. The word “arc” emphasizes that many of these chains define a curve on a map. Continental arcs, such as the Andean arc of South America and the Cascade arc in the northwestern United States, grow along the edge of a continent, where oceanic lithosphere subducts beneath continental lithosphere. Island arcs, such as the Aleutian arc of Alaska and the Mariana arc of the western Pacific, protrude from the ocean at localities where one oceanic plate subducts beneath another. Beneath volcanic arcs, a variety of intrusions plutons, dikes, and sills develop, to be exposed only later, when erosion has removed the volcanic overburden. In some localities, arc-related igneous activity produces huge batholiths. How does subduction trigger melting? Some minerals in oceanic crust rocks contain volatile compounds (mostly water). At shallow depths, volatiles are chemically bonded to the minerals. But when subduction carries crust down into the hot asthenosphere, “wet” crustal rocks warm up. At a depth of about 150 km, crust becomes so hot that volatiles separate from crustal minerals and diffuse up into the overlying asthenosphere. Addition of volatiles causes the hot ultramafic rock in the asthenosphere to undergo partial melting, a process that yields mafic magma. This magma either rises directly, to erupt as basaltic lava, or undergoes fractional crystallization before erupting and evolves into intermediate or felsic lava. In continental volcanic arcs, not all the mantle-derived basaltic magma rises directly to the surface; some gets trapped at the base of the continental crust, and some in magma chambers deep in the crust. When this happens, heat transfers into the continental crust and causes partial melting of this crust. Because much of the continental crust is mafic to intermediate in composition to start with, the resulting magmas are intermediate to felsic in composition. This magma rises, leaving the basalt behind, and either cools higher in the crust to form plutons or rises to the surface and erupts. For this reason, granitic plutons and andesite lavas form at continental arcs.

Products of Hot Spots 

Most researchers think that hotspot volcanoes form above plumes of hot mantle rock from deep in the mantle, though some studies suggest that some hot spots may originate due to other processes happening at shallower depths. According to the plume hypothesis, a column, or “plume” of very hot rock rises like soft plastic up through the overlying mantle beneath a hot spot. (Note that a plume does not consist of magma; it is solid, though relatively soft and able to flow.) When the hot rock of a plume reaches the base of the lithosphere, decompression causes it to undergo partial melting, a process that generates mafic magma. The mafic magma then rises through the lithosphere, pools in a magma chamber in the crust, and eventually erupts at the surface, forming a volcano. In the case of oceanic hot spots, mostly mafic magma erupts. In the case of continental hot spots, some of the mafic magma erupts to form basalt; but some transfers heat to the continental crust, which then partially melts itself, producing felsic magmas that erupt to form rhyolite. 

Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) 

A map showing the distribution of large igneous provinces (LIPs) on Earth. The red areas are or once were underlain by immense volumes of basalt; not all of this basalt is exposed.
In many places on Earth, particularly voluminous quantities of mafic magma have erupted and/or intruded (figure above). Some of these regions occur along the margins of continents, some in the interior of oceanic plates, and some in the interior of continents. The largest of these, the Ontong Java Oceanic Plateau of the western Pacific, covers an area of about 5,000,000 km2 of the sea floor and has a volume of about 50,000,000 km3. Such provinces also occur on land. It’s no surprise that these huge volumes of igneous rock are called large igneous provinces (LIPs). More recently, this term LIP has been applied to huge eruptions of felsic ash too.

Flood basalts form when vast quantities of low-viscosity mafic lava "floods" over the landscape and freezes into a thin sheet. Accumulation of successive flows builds a flat-topped plateau.
Mafic LIPs may form when the bulbous head of a mantle plume first reaches the base of the lithosphere. More partial melting can occur in a plume head than in normal asthenosphere, because temperatures are higher in a plume head. Thus, an unusually large quantity of unusually hot basaltic magma forms in the plume head; when the magma reaches the surface, huge quantities of basaltic lava spew out of the ground. If the plume head lies beneath a rift, added decompression can lead to even more melting (figure above a). The particularly hot basaltic lava that erupts at such localities has such low viscosity that it can flow tens to hundreds of kilometres across the landscape. Geoscientists refer to such flows as flood basalts. Flood basalts make up the bedrock of the Columbia River Plateau in Oregon and Washington (figure above b and c), the Paraná Plateau in southeastern Brazil, the Karoo region of southern Africa, and the Deccan region of southwestern India. 

Igneous Rocks at Rifts 

Successful rifting splits a continent in two and gives birth to a new mid-ocean ridge. As the continental lithosphere thins during rifting, the weight of rock overlying the asthenosphere decreases, so pressure in the asthenosphere decreases and decompression melting produces basaltic magma, which rises into the crust. Some of this magma makes it to the surface and erupts as basalt. However, some of the magma gets trapped in the crust and transfers heat to the crust. The resulting partial melting of the crust yields felsic (silicic) magmas that erupt as rhyolite. Thus, a sequence of volcanic rocks in a rift generally includes basaltic flows and sheets of rhyolitic lava or ash. Locally, the felsic and mafic magmas mix to form intermediate magma.

Forming Igneous Rocks at Mid-Ocean Ridges 

Most igneous rocks at the Earth’s surface form at mid-ocean ridges, that is, along divergent plate boundaries. Think about it the entire oceanic crust, a 7- to 10-km-thick layer of basalt and gabbro that covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, forms at mid-ocean ridges. And this entire volume gets subducted and replaced by new crust, over a period of about 200 million years. Igneous magmas form at mid-ocean ridges for much the same reason they do at hot spots and rifts. As sea-floor spreading occurs and oceanic lithosphere plates drift away from the ridge, hot asthenosphere rises to keep the resulting space filled. As this asthenosphere rises, it undergoes decompression, which leads to partial melting and the generation of basaltic magma. This magma rises into the crust and pools in a shallow magma chamber. Some cools slowly along the margins of the magma chamber to form massive gabbro, while some intrudes upward to fill vertical cracks that appear as newly formed crust splits apart. Magma that cools in the cracks forms basalt dikes, and magma that makes it to the sea floor and extrudes as lava forms pillow basalt flows.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)


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