Basalt is a dark-colored, fine-grained, igneous rock composed mainly of plagioclase and pyroxene minerals. It most commonly forms as an extrusive rock, such as a lava flow, but can also form in small intrusive bodies, such as an igneous dike or a thin sill. It has a composition similar to gabbro. The difference between basalt and gabbro is that basalt is a fine-grained rock while gabbro is a coarse-grained rock.
Basalt underlies more of Earth’s surface than any other rock type. Most areas within Earth’s ocean basins are underlain by basalt. Although basalt is much less common on continents, lava flows and flood basalts underlie several percent of Earth’s land surface. Basalt is a very important rock.
How Basalt Roock is formed?
Most of the basalt found on Earth was produced in just three rock-forming environments:
- Oceanic divergent boundaries
- Oceanic hotspots
- Mantle plumes and hotspots beneath the continent
Basalts at 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 seafloor. These submarine fissure eruptions often produce pillow basalts. 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. 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 seafloor.
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.
Plumes & 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.
Uses of Basalt Rocks
Basalt is used for a wide variety of purposes. It is most commonly crushed for use as an aggregate in construction projects. Crushed basalt is used for road base, concrete aggregate, asphalt pavement aggregate, railroad ballast, filter stone in drain fields, and many 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.