Igneous rock

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Distribution of volcanic rock in North America.

Igneous rocks form when magma (molten rock) cools and solidifies. The solidification process may or may not involve crystallization, and it may take place either below the Earth's surface to generate "intrusive" (plutonic) rocks or on the surface to produce "extrusive" (volcanic) rocks. The magma may be derived from partial melts of pre-existing rocks in the Earth's mantle or crust. The melting may be the result of an increase in temperature, decrease in pressure, change in composition of the rock, or a combination of these factors.

Igneous rocks make up approximately 95 percent of the upper part of the Earth's crust, but their great abundance is hidden from the surface by a relatively thin but widespread layer of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. More than 700 types of igneous rocks have been described, most of which were formed beneath the surface of the Earth's crust.

Igneous rocks are important for several reasons:

  • Their minerals and global chemistry provide information about the composition of the mantle, from which some igneous rocks are extracted, and the temperature and pressure conditions that led to this extraction.
  • Their ages can be calculated by various methods of radiometric dating. By comparing their ages with those of adjacent geological strata, a time sequence of events can be put together.
  • Their features are usually characteristic of a specific tectonic environment, allowing scientists to reconstitute tectonic processes.
  • Under some circumstances, they host important mineral deposits (ores). For example, ores of tungsten, tin, and uranium are usually associated with granites, and ores of chromium and platinum are commonly associated with gabbros.
Distribution of plutonic rock in North America.

Morphology and setting

As noted above, igneous rocks may be either intrusive (plutonic) or extrusive (volcanic).

Intrusive igneous rocks

Intrusive igneous rocks are formed from magma that cools and solidifies within the earth. Surrounded by pre-existing rock (called country rock), the magma cools slowly, and as a result these rocks are coarse grained. The mineral grains in such rocks can generally be identified with the naked eye. Intrusive rocks can also be classified according to the shape and size of the intrusive body and its relation to the other formations into which it intrudes. Typical intrusive formations are batholiths, stocks, laccoliths, sills and dikes. The extrusive types usually are called lavas.

The central cores of major mountain ranges consist of intrusive igneous rocks, usually granite. When exposed by erosion, these cores (called batholiths) may occupy huge areas of the Earth's surface.

Coarse grained intrusive igneous rocks which form at depth within the earth are termed as abyssal; intrusive igneous rocks which form near the surface are termed hypabyssal.

Igneous rock - light colored tracks show the direction of lava flow

Extrusive igneous rocks

Extrusive igneous rocks are formed at the Earth's surface as a result of the partial melting of rocks within the mantle and crust.

The melt, with or without suspended crystals and gas bubbles, is called magma. Magma rises because it is less dense than the rock from which it was created. When it reaches the surface, magma extruded onto the surface either beneath water or air, is called lava. Eruptions of volcanoes under the air are termed subaerial whereas those occurring underneath the ocean are termed submarine. Black smokers and mid-ocean ridge basalt are examples of submarine volcanic activity.

Magma which erupts from a volcano behaves according to its viscosity, determined by temperature, composition, and crystal content. High-temperature magma, most of which is basaltic in composition, behaves in a manner similar to thick oil and, as it cools, treacle. Long, thin basalt flows with pahoehoe surfaces are common. Intermediate composition magma such as andesite tends to form cinder cones of intermingled ash, tuff and lava, and may have viscosity similar to thick, cold molasses or even rubber when erupted. Felsic magma such as rhyolite is usually erupted at low temperature and is up to 10,000 times as viscous as basalt. Volcanoes with rhyolitic magma commonly erupt explosively, and rhyolitic lava flows typically are of limited extent and have steep margins, because the magma is so viscous.

Felsic and intermediate magmas that erupt often do so violently, with explosions driven by release of dissolved gases—typically water but also carbon dioxide. Explosively erupted material is called tephra, and volcanic deposits are called pyroclastic, and they include tuff, agglomerate and ignimbrite. Fine volcanic ash is also erupted and forms ash tuff deposits which can often cover vast areas.

Because lava cools and crystallizes rapidly, it is fine grained. If the cooling has been so rapid as to prevent the formation of even small crystals after extrusion, the resulting rock may be mostly glass (such as the rock obsidian). If the cooling of the lava happened slowly, the rocks would be coarse-grained.

Because the minerals are fine-grained, it is much more difficult to distinguish between the different types of extrusive igneous rocks than between different types of intrusive igneous rocks. Generally, the mineral constituents of fine-grained extrusive igneous rocks can only be determined by examination of thin sections of the rock under a microscope, so only an approximate classification can usually be made in the field.


Igneous rock are classified according to mode of occurrence, texture, mineralogy, chemical composition, and the geometry of the igneous body.

The classification of the many types of different igneous rocks can provide us with important information about the conditions under which they formed. Two important variables used for the classification of igneous rocks are particle size, which largely depends upon the cooling history, and the mineral composition of the rock. Feldspars, quartz or feldspathoids, olivines, pyroxenes, amphiboles, and micas are all important minerals in the formation of almost all igneous rocks, and they are basic to the classification of these rocks. All other minerals present are regarded as nonessential in almost all igneous rocks and are called accessory minerals. Types of igneous rocks with other essential minerals are very rare, and these rare rocks include those with essential carbonates.

In a simplified classification, igneous rock types are separated on the basis of the type of feldspar present, the presence or absence of quartz, and in rocks with no feldspar or quartz, the type of iron or magnesium minerals present. Rocks containing quartz (silica in composition) are silica-oversaturated. Rocks with feldspathoids are silica-undersaturated, because feldspathoids cannot coexist with in a stable association with quartz.

Igneous rocks which have crystals large enough to be seen by the naked eye are called phaneritic; those with crystals too small to be seen are called aphanitic. Generally speaking, phaneritic implies an intrusive origin; aphanitic an extrusive one.

An igneous rock with larger, clearly discernible crystals embedded in a finer-grained matrix is termed porphyry. Porphyritic texture develops when some of the crystals grow to considerable size before the main mass of the magma crystallizes as finer-grained, uniform material.


main article Rock microstructure

Texture is an important criterion for the naming of volcanic rocks. The texture of volcanic rocks, including the size, shape, orientation, and distribution of grains and the intergrain relationships, will determine whether the rock is termed a tuff, a pyroclastic lava or a simple lava.

However, the texture is only a subordinate part of classifying volcanic rocks, as most often there needs to be chemical information gleaned from rocks with extremely fine-grained groundmass or which are airfall tuffs which may be formed from volcanic ash.

Textural criteria are less critical in classifying intrusive rocks where the majority of minerals will be visible to the naked eye or at least using a hand lens, magnifying glass or microscope. Plutonic rocks tend also to be less texturally varied and less prone to gaining structural fabrics. Textural terms can be used to differentiate different intrusive phases of large plutons, for instance porphyritic margins to large intrusive bodies, porphyry stocks and subvolcanic apophyses. Mineralogical classification is used most often to classify plutonic rocks and chemical classifications are preferred to classify volcanic rocks, with phenocryst species used as a prefix, eg; "olivine-bearing picrite" or "orthoclase-phyric rhyolite."

  • see also List of rock textures and Igneous textures

Chemical classification

Igneous rocks can be classified according to chemical or mineralogical parameters:

Chemical - Total alkali - silica content (TAS diagram) for volcanic rock classification used when modal or mineralogic data is unavailable:

  • acid igneous rocks containing a high silica content, greater than 63 percent SiO2 (examples rhyolite and dacite)
  • intermediate igneous rocks containing 52 - 63 percent SiO2 (example andesite)
  • basic igneous rocks have low silica 45 - 52 percent and typically high iron - magnesium content (example basalt)
  • ultrabasic igneous rocks with less than 45 percent silica. (examples picrite and komatiite)
  • alkalic igneous rocks with 5 - 15 percent alkali (K2O + Na2O) content or with a molar ratio of alkali to silica greater than 1:6. (examples phonolite and trachyte)
Note: the acid-basic terminology is used more broadly in older (generally British) geological literature. In current literature felsic-mafic roughly substitutes for acid-basic.

Chemical classification also extends to differentiating rocks which are chemically similar according to the TAS diagram, for instance;

  • Ultrapotassic; rocks containing molar K2O/Na2O greater than 3
  • Peralkaline; rocks containing molar (K2O + Na2O)/ Al2O3 greater than 1
  • Peraluminous; rocks containing molar (K2O + Na2O)/ Al2O3 less than 1

An idealized mineralogy (the normative mineralogy) can be calculated from the chemical composition, and the calculation is useful for rocks too fine-grained or too altered for identification of minerals that crystallized from the melt. For instance, normative quartz classifies a rock as silica-oversaturated; an example is rhyolite. A normative feldspathoid classifies a rock as silica-undersaturated; an example is nephelinite.

texture depends on the size, shape, and arrangement of its mineral crystals.

History of classification

In 1902 a group of American petrographers brought forward a proposal to discard all existing classifications of igneous rocks and to substitute for them a "quantitative" classification based on chemical analysis. They showed how vague and often unscientific was much of the existing terminology and argued that as the chemical composition of an igneous rock was its most fundamental characteristic it should be elevated to prime position.

Geological occurrence, structure, mineralogical constitution, the hitherto-accepted criteria for the discrimination of rock species were relegated to the background. The completed rock analysis is first to be interpreted in terms of the rock-forming minerals which might be expected to be formed when the magma crystallizes, e.g. quartz feldspars, olivine, akermannite, feldspathoids, magnetite, corundum and so on, and the rocks are divided into groups strictly according to the relative proportion of these minerals to one another.(Cross 1903)

Mineralogical classification

For volcanic rocks, mineralogy is important in classifying and naming lavas. The most important criteria is the phenocryst species, followed by the groundmass mineralogy. Often, where the groundmass is aphanitic, chemical classification must be used to properly identify a volcanic rock.

Mineralogic contents - felsic versus mafic

  • felsic rock, with predominance of quartz, alkali feldspar and/or feldspathoids: the felsic minerals; these rocks (e.g., granite) are usually light coloured, and have low density.
  • mafic rock, with predominance of mafic minerals pyroxenes, olivines and calcic plagioclase; these rocks (example, basalt) are usually dark coloured, and have higher density than felsic rocks.
  • ultramafic rock, with more than 90 percent of mafic minerals (e.g., dunite)

For intrusive, plutonic and usually phaneritic igneous rocks where all minerals are visible at least via microscope, the mineralogy is used to classify the rock. This usually occurs on ternary diagrams, where the relative proportions of three minerals are used to classify the rock.

The following table is a simple subdivision of igneous rocks according both to their composition and mode of occurrence.

Mode of occurrence Acid Intermediate Basic Ultrabasic
Intrusive Granite Diorite Gabbro Peridotite
Extrusive Rhyolite Andesite Basalt Komatiite

For a more detailed classification see QAPF diagram.

Example of classification

Granite is an igneous intrusive rock (crystallized at depth), with felsic composition (rich in silica and with more than 10 percent of felsic minerals) and phaneritic, subeuhedral texture (minerals are visible for the unaided eye and some of them retain original crystallographic shapes). Granite is the most abundant intrusive rock that can be found in the continents.

Magma origination

The Earth's crust averages about 35 kilometers thick under the continents, but averages only some 7-10 kilometers beneath the oceans. The continental crust is composed primarily of sedimentary rocks resting on crystalline basement formed of a great variety of metamorphic and igneous rocks including granulite and granite. Oceanic crust is composed primarily of basalt and gabbro. Both continental and oceanic crust rest on peridotite of the mantle.

Rocks may melt in response to a decrease in pressure, to a change in composition such as an addition of water, to an increase in temperature, or to a combination of these processes. Other mechanisms, such as melting from impact of a meteorite, are less important today, but impacts during accretion of the Earth led to extensive melting, and the outer several hundred kilometers of our early Earth probably was an ocean of magma. Impacts of large meteorites in last few hundred million years have been proposed as one mechanism responsible for the extensive basalt magmatism of several large igneous provinces.


Decompression melting occurs because of a decrease in pressure. The solidus temperatures of most rocks (the temperatures below which they are completely solid) increase with increasing pressure in the absence of water. Peridotite at depth in the Earth's mantle may be hotter than its solidus temperature at some shallower level. If such rock rises during the convection of solid mantle, it will cool slightly as it expands in an adiabatic process, but the cooling is only about 0.3°C per kilometer. Experimental studies of appropriate peridotite samples document that the solidus temperatures increase by 3°C to 4°C per kilometer. If the rock rises far enough, it will begin to melt. Melt droplets can coalesce into larger volumes and be intruded upwards. This process of melting from upward movement of solid mantle is critical in the evolution of the earth.

Decompression melting creates the ocean crust at mid-ocean ridges. Decompression melting caused by the rise of mantle plumes is responsible for creating ocean islands like the Hawaiian islands. Plume-related decompression melting also is the most common explanation for flood basalts and oceanic plateaus (two types of large igneous provinces), although other causes such as melting related to meteorite impact have been proposed for some of these huge volumes of igneous rock.

Effects of water and carbon dioxide

The change of rock composition most responsible for creation of magma is the addition of water. Water lowers the solidus temperature of rocks at a given pressure. For example, at a depth of about 100 kilometers, peridotite begins to melt near 800°C in the presence of excess water, but near or above about 1500°C in the absence of water (Grove and others, 2006). Water is driven out of the ocean lithosphere in subduction zones, and it causes melting in the overlying mantle. Hydrous magmas of basalt and andesite composition are produced directly and indirectly as results of dehydration during the subduction process. Such magmas and those derived from them build up island arcs such as those in the Pacific ring of fire. These magmas form rocks of the calc-alkaline series, an important part of continental crust.

The addition of carbon dioxide is relatively a much less important cause of magma formation than addition of water, but genesis of some silica-undersaturated magmas has been attributed to the dominance of carbon dioxide over water in their mantle source regions. In the presence of carbon dioxide, experiments document that the peridotite solidus temperature decreases by about 200°C in a narrow pressure interval at pressures corresponding to a depth of about 70 km. Magmas of rock types such as nephelinite, carbonatite, and kimberlite are among those that may be generated following an influx of carbon dioxide into a mantle volume at depths greater than about 70 km.

Temperature increase

Increase of temperature is the most typical mechanism for formation of magma within continental crust. Such temperature increases can occur because of the upward intrusion of magma from the mantle. Temperatures can also exceed the solidus of a crustal rock in continental crust thickened by compression at a plate boundary. The plate boundary between the Indian and Asian continental masses provides a well-studied example, as the Tibetan Plateau just north of the boundary has crust about 80 kilometers thick, roughly twice the thickness of normal continental crust. Studies of electrical resistivity deduced from magnetotelluric data have detected a layer that appears to contain silicate melt and that stretches for at least 1000 kilometers within the middle crust along the southern margin of the Tibetan Plateau (Unsworth and others, 2005). Granite and rhyolite are types of igneous rock commonly interpreted as products of melting of continental crust because of increases of temperature. Temperature increases also may contribute to the melting of lithosphere dragged down in a subduction zone.

Magma evolution

Most magmas are only entirely melt for small parts of their histories. More typically, they are mixes of melt and crystals, and sometimes also of gas bubbles. Melt, crystals, and bubbles usually have different densities, and so they can separate as magmas evolve.

As magma cools, minerals typically crystallize from the melt at different temperatures (fractional crystallization). As minerals crystallize, the composition of the residual melt typically changes. If crystals separate from melt, then the residual melt will differ in composition from the parent magma. For instance, a magma of gabbro composition can produce a residual melt of granite composition if early formed crystals are separated from the magma. Gabbro may have a liquidus temperature near 1200°C, and derivative granite-composition melt may have a liquidus temperature as low as about 700°C. Incompatible elements are concentrated in the last residues of magma during fractional crystallization and in the first melts produced during partial melting: either process can form the magma that crystallizes to pegmatite, a rock type commonly enriched in incompatible elements. Bowen's reaction series is important for understanding the idealised sequence of fractional crystallisation of a magma.

Magma composition can be determined by processes other than partial melting and fractional crystallization. For instance, magmas commonly interact with rocks they intrude, both by melting those rocks and by reacting with them. Magmas of different compositions can mix with one another. In rare cases, melts can separate into two immiscible melts of contrasting compositions.

There are relatively few minerals that are important in the formation of common igneous rocks, because the magma from which the minerals crystallize is rich in only certain elements: silicon, oxygen, aluminium, sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium. These are the elements which combine to form the silicate minerals, which account for over ninety percent of all igneous rocks. The chemistry of igneous rocks is expressed differently for major and minor elements and for trace elements. Contents of major and minor elements are conventionally expressed as weight percent oxides (e.g., 51 percent SiO2, and 1.50 percent TiO2). Abundances of trace elements are conventionally expressed as parts per million by weight (e.g., 420 ppm Ni, and 5.1 ppm Sm). The term "trace element" typically is used for elements present in most rocks at abundances less than 100 ppm or so, but some trace elements may be present in some rocks at abundances exceeding 1000 ppm. The diversity of rock compositions has been defined by a huge mass of analytical data—over 230,000 rock analyses can be accessed on the web through a site sponsored by the U. S. National Science Foundation (see the External Link to EarthChem).


The word "igneous" is derived from the Latin igneus, meaning "of fire." Volcanic rocks are named after Vulcan, the Roman name for the god of fire.
Intrusive rocks are also called plutonic rocks, named after Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blatt, Harvey, and Robert J. Tracy. 1995. Petrology: Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic, 2nd ed. New York: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0716724383
  • Cross, Whitman, et al. 1903. Quantitative Classification of Igneous Rocks Based on Chemical and Mineral Characters, With a Systematic Nomenclature. with Introductory Review of Development of Systematic Petrography in the 19th Cent. Chicago: University of Chicago: W. Wesley and Son, 1903. ASIN B00088YNFM
  • Farndon, John. 2006. The Practical Encyclopedia of Rocks & Minerals: How to Find, Identify, Collect and Maintain the World's best Specimens, with over 1000 Photographs and Artworks. London: Lorenz Books. ISBN 0754815412
  • McBirney, Alexander R. 2006. Igneous Petrology. 3rd ed. Jones & Bartlett. ISBN 0763734489
  • Pellant, Chris. 2002. Rocks and Minerals. Smithsonian Handbooks. New York: Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 0789491060
  • Shaffer, Paul R., Herbert S. Zim, and Raymond Perlman. 2001. Rocks, Gems and Minerals. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 1582381321
  • Skinner, Brian J., Stephen C. Porter, and Jeffrey Park. 2004. Dynamic Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology. 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley. ISBN 0471152285


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