Molten basalt lava has a low viscosity due to its relatively low silica content (between 45% and 52%), resulting in rapidly moving lava flows that can spread over great areas before cooling and solidifying. Flood basalts are thick sequences of many such flows that can cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and constitute the most voluminous of all volcanic formations.
Geologists classify igneous rock by its mineral content whenever possible, with the relative volume percentages of quartz, alkali feldspar, plagioclase, and feldspathoid (QAPF) being particularly important. An aphanitic (fine-grained) igneous rock is classified as basalt when its QAPF fraction is composed of less than 10% feldspathoid and less than 20% quartz, with plagioclase making up at least 65% of its feldspar content. This places basalt in the basalt/andesite field of the QAPF diagram. Basalt is further distinguished from andesite by its silica content of less than 52%.
It is often not practical to determine the mineral composition of volcanic rocks, due to their very fine grain size, and geologists then classify the rocks chemically, with the total content of alkali metal oxides and silica (TAS) being particularly important. Basalt is then defined as volcanic rock with a content of 45% to 52% silica and not more than 5% alkali metal oxides. This places basalt in the B field of the TAS diagram. Such a composition is described as mafic.
Basalt is usually dark grey to black in colour, due to its high content of augite or other dark-coloured pyroxene minerals, but can exhibit a wide range of shading. Some basalts are quite light-coloured due to a high content of plagioclase, and these are sometimes described as leucobasalts. Lighter basalt can be difficult to distinguish from andesite, but a common rule of thumb, used in field research, is that basalt has a color index of 35 or greater.
The physical properties of basalt reflect its relatively low silica content and typically high iron and magnesium content. The average density of basalt is 2.9 g/cm3, compared with a typical density for granite of 2.7 g/cm3. The viscosity of basaltic magma is relatively low, around 104 to 105cP, although this is still many orders of magnitude higher than water (which has a viscosity of about 1 cP). The viscosity of basaltic magma is similar to that of ketchup.
Basalt often contains vesicles, formed when dissolved gases bubble out of the magma as it decompresses during its approach to the surface, and the erupted lava then solidifies before the gases can escape. When vesicles make up a substantial fraction of the volume of the rock, the rock is described as scoria.
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 more properly referred to as diabase (also called dolerite) or, when more coarse-grained (crystals over 2 mm across), as gabbro. Diabase and gabbro are thus the hypabyssal and plutonic equivalents of basalt.
On Earth, most basalt magmas have formed by decompression melting of the mantle. The high pressure in the upper mantle (due to the weight of the overlying rock) raises the melting point of mantle rock, so that almost all of the upper mantle is solid. However, mantle rock is ductile (the solid rock slowly deforms under high stress). Where tectonic forces cause hot mantle rock to creep upwards, the decrease of the pressure on the ascending rock can cause its melting point to drop enough for the rock to partially melt. This produces basaltic magma.
Decompression melting can occur in a variety of tectonic settings. These include continental rifts zones, at mid-ocean ridges, above hotspots, and in back-arc basins. Basalt is also produced in subduction zones, where mantle rock rises into a mantle wedge above the descending slab. Decompression melting in this setting is enhanced by further lowering of the melting point by water vapor and other volatiles released from the slab. Each such setting produces basalt with distinctive characteristics.
Mid-ocean ridge basalt (MORB) is a tholeiitic basalt commonly erupted only at ocean ridges and is characteristically low in incompatible elements. Although all MORBs are chemically similar, geologists recognize that they vary significantly in how depleted they are in incompatible elements. Their presence in close proximity along mid-ocean ridges is interpreted as evidence for mantle inhomogeneity.
E-MORB, enriched MORB, is relatively undepleted in incompatible elements. E-MORB was once thought to be typical of hot spots along mid-ocean ridges, such as Iceland, but is now known to be present in many locations along mid-ocean ridges.
N-MORB, normal MORB, is average in its content of incompatible elements.
D-MORB, depleted MORB, is highly depleted in incompatible elements.
High-alumina basalt has greater than 17% alumina (Al2O3) and is intermediate in composition between tholeiitic basalt and alkali basalt. Its relatively alumina-rich composition is based on rocks without phenocrysts of plagioclase. These represent the low silica end of the calc-alkaline magma series and are characteristic of volcanic arcs above subduction zones.
Ocean island basalts include both tholeiites and alkali basalts, with tholeiite predominating early in the eruptive history of the island. These basalts are characterized by elevated concentrations of incompatible elements. This suggests that their source mantle rock has produced little magma in the past (it is undepleted).
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 tholeiitic basalts are formed at approximately 50–100 km depth within the mantle. Many alkali basalts 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 fractionation.: 65
Basalt generally has a composition of 45–52 wt% SiO2, 2–5 wt% total alkalis, 0.5–2.0 wt% TiO2, 5–14 wt% FeO and 14 wt% or more Al2O3. Contents of CaO are commonly near 10 wt%, those of MgO commonly in the range 5 to 12 wt%.
High-alumina basalts have aluminium contents of 17–19 wt% Al2O3; boninites have magnesium (MgO) contents of up to 15 percent. Rare feldspathoid-rich mafic rocks, akin to alkali basalts, may have Na2O + K2O contents of 12% or more.
The abundances of the lanthanide or rare-earth elements (REE) can be a useful diagnostic tool to help explain the history of mineral crystallisation as the melt cooled. In particular, the relative abundance of europium compared to the other REE is often markedly higher or lower, and called the europium anomaly. It arises because Eu2+ can substitute for Ca2+ in plagioclase feldspar, unlike any of the other lanthanides, which tend to only form 3+cations.
Mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORB) and their intrusive equivalents, gabbros, are the characteristic igneous rocks formed at mid-ocean ridges. They are tholeiitic basalts particularly low in total alkalis and in incompatible trace elements, and they have relatively flat REE patterns normalized to mantle or chondrite values. In contrast, alkali basalts have normalized patterns highly enriched in the light REE, and with greater abundances of the REE and of other incompatible elements. Because MORB basalt is considered a key to understanding plate tectonics, its compositions have been much studied. Although MORB compositions are distinctive relative to average compositions of basalts erupted in other environments, they are not uniform. For instance, compositions change with position along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the compositions also define different ranges in different ocean basins. Mid-ocean ridge basalts have been subdivided into varieties such as normal (NMORB) and those slightly more enriched in incompatible elements (EMORB).
The shape, structure and texture of a basalt is diagnostic of how and where it erupted—for example, whether into the sea, in an explosive cinder eruption or as creeping pāhoehoe lava flows, the classic image of Hawaiian basalt eruptions.
Basalt in the tops of subaerial lava flows and cinder cones will often be highly vesiculated, imparting a lightweight "frothy" texture to the rock. Basaltic cinders are often red, coloured by oxidized iron from weathered iron-rich minerals such as pyroxene.
ʻAʻā types of blocky, cinder and breccia flows of thick, viscous basaltic lava are common in Hawaiʻi. 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 pāhoehoe eruptions.
Basaltic tuff or pyroclastic rocks are less common than basaltic lava flows. 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. Hawaiʻi'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.
During the cooling of a thick lava flow, contractional 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 cannot 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.
Pillow basalts on the south Pacific seafloor
The character of submarine basalt eruptions is largely determined by depth of water, since increased pressure restricts the release of volatile gases and results in effusive eruptions. It has been estimated that at depths greater than 500 metres (1,600 ft), explosive activity associated with basaltic magma is suppressed. Above this depth, submarine eruptions are often explosive, tending to produce pyroclastic rock rather than basalt flows. These eruptions, described as Surtseyan, are characterised by large quantities of steam and gas and the creation of large amounts of pumice.
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 metres.
When pāhoehoe lava enters the sea it usually forms pillow basalts. However, when ʻaʻā enters the ocean it forms a littoral cone, a small cone-shaped accumulation of tuffaceous debris formed when the blocky ʻaʻā 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 fluid, 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 pāhoehoe-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.
As well as forming large parts of the Earth's crust, basalt also occurs in other parts of the Solar System. Basalt commonly erupts on Io (the third largest moon of Jupiter), and has also formed on the Moon, Mars, Venus, and the asteroid Vesta.
Lunar basalts differ from their Earth counterparts principally in their high iron contents, which typically range from about 17 to 22 wt% FeO. They also possess a wide range of titanium concentrations (present in the mineral ilmenite), ranging from less than 1 wt% TiO2, to about 13 wt.%. Traditionally, lunar basalts have been classified according to their titanium content, with classes being named high-Ti, low-Ti, and very-low-Ti. Nevertheless, global geochemical maps of titanium obtained from the Clementine mission demonstrate that the lunar maria possess a continuum of titanium concentrations, and that the highest concentrations are the least abundant.
Lunar basalts show exotic textures and mineralogy, particularly shock metamorphism, lack of the oxidation typical of terrestrial basalts, and a complete lack of hydration. Most of the Moon's basalts erupted between about 3 and 3.5 billion years ago, but the oldest samples are 4.2 billion years old, and the youngest flows, based on the age dating method of crater counting, are estimated to have erupted only 1.2 billion years ago.
From 1972 to 1985, five Venera and two VEGA landers successfully reached the surface of Venus and carried out geochemical measurements using X-ray fluorescence and gamma-ray analysis. These returned results consistent with the rock at the landing sites being basalts, including both tholeiitic and highly alkaline basalts. The landers are thought to have landed on plains whose radar signature is that of basaltic lava flows. These constitute about 80% of the surface of Venus. Some locations show high reflectivity consistent with unweathered basalt, indicating basaltic volcanism within the last 2.5 million years.
Analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta suggests this asteroid has a basaltic crust covered with a brecciated regolith derived from the crust. Evidence from Earth-based telescopes and the Dawn mission suggest that Vesta is the source of the HED meteorites, which have basaltic characteristics. Vesta is the main contributor to the inventory of basaltic asteroids of the main Asteroid Belt.
Lava flows represent a major volcanic terrain on Io. Analysis of the Voyager images led scientists to believe that these flows were composed mostly of various compounds of molten sulfur. However, subsequent Earth-based infrared studies and measurements from the Galileo spacecraft indicate that these flows are composed of basaltic lava with mafic to ultramafic compositions. This conclusion is based on temperature measurements of Io's "hotspots", or thermal-emission locations, which suggest temperatures of at least 1,300 K and some as high as 1,600 K. Initial estimates suggesting eruption temperatures approaching 2,000 K have since proven to be overestimates because the wrong thermal models were used to model the temperatures.
Alteration of basalt
Kaolinized basalt near Hungen, Vogelsberg, Germany
Compared to granitic rocks exposed at the Earth's surface, basalt outcrops weather relatively rapidly. This reflects their content of minerals that crystallized at higher temperatures and in an environment poorer in water vapor than granite. These minerals are less stable in the colder, wetter environment at the Earth's surface. The finer grain size of basalt and the volcanic glass sometimes found between the grains also hasten weathering. The high iron content of basalt causes weathered surfaces in humid climates to accumulate a thick crust of hematite or other iron oxides and hydroxides, staining the rock a brown to rust-red colour. Because of the low potassium content of most basalts, weathering converts the basalt to calcium-rich clay (montmorillonite) rather than potassium-rich clay (illite). Further weathering, particularly in tropical climates, converts the montmorillonite to kaolinite or gibbsite. This produces the distinctive tropical soil known as laterite. The ultimate weathering product is bauxite, the principle ore of aluminium.
Metamorphosed basalt from an Archeangreenstone belt in Michigan, US. The minerals that gave the original basalt its black colour have been metamorphosed into green minerals.
Intense heat or great pressure transforms basalt into its metamorphic rock equivalents. Depending on the temperature and pressure of metamoprhism, these may include greenschist, amphibolite, or eclogite. Basalts are important rocks within metamorphic regions because they can provide vital information on the conditions of metamorphism that have affected the region.
The common corrosion features of underwater volcanic basalt suggest that microbial activity may play a significant role in the chemical exchange between basaltic rocks and seawater. The significant amounts of reduced iron, Fe(II), and manganese, Mn(II), present in basaltic rocks provide potential energy sources for bacteria. Some Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria cultured from iron-sulfide surfaces are also able to grow with basaltic rock as a source of Fe(II). Fe- and Mn- oxidizing bacteria have been cultured from weathered submarine basalts of Loihi Seamount. The impact of bacteria on altering the chemical composition of basaltic glass (and thus, the oceanic crust) and seawater suggest that these interactions may lead to an application of hydrothermal vents to the origin of life.
Carbon sequestration in basalt has been studied as a means of removing carbon dioxide, produced by human industrialization, from the atmosphere. Underwater basalt deposits, scattered in seas around the globe, have the added benefit of the water serving as a barrier to the re-release of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Basalt fan structure – Rock formation composed of columnar jointed basalt columns that have slumped into a fan shape
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