Plutonic and Volcanic Rocks

Among igneous rocks, i.e. those formed from magma or molten rock, the most important difference may be between plutonic and volcanic rocks. Plutonic rocks are formed underground. They involve the "intrusion" or insertion of magma between other rocks, which then cools below the surface. Volcanic rocks are formed above ground. They involve the "extrusion" or eruption of magma, which then is called "lava." The lava cools upon or very close to the surface. Volcanic rocks can also form from "ash", which is simply pulverized rock blown into the air (not like the "ash" that results from burning wood) -- larger rocks are "bombs." Plutonic rocks are named after Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld, although the word literally means "wealth," probably because precious metals are generally dug out of the ground. Indeed, gold and silver are characteristically found in "veins," which are intrusions and so part of plutonic rocks. Volcanic rocks are named after volcanoes, which erupt the lava; and volcanoes are named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking. In the history of geology, there used to be rocks named after another Classical god, namely "neptunian" rocks named after Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Neptunian rocks were those formed under water. Originally, some people thought that all rocks were neptunian. When it was demonstrated that volcanic rocks came from volcanoes, there was at first a struggle over whether rocks like granite were neptunian or volcanic. It turned out that they were neither. Granite is plutonic. This leaves sedimentary rocks as generally neptunian, but the word is no longer used because there are sedimentary rocks that are deposited on dry land. Thus, one of the most popular terms in early geology has now all but disappeared. Volcanoes are among the most spectacular of geological phenomena, but plutonic rocks are what end up forming the basic structure of continents. A "pluton" can be a large formation of plutonic rock, but plutonic intrusions can extend for hundred of miles, creating "batholiths," i.e. "deep rocks," which often form the massive roots of modern mountain ranges. The processes that produce plutons and volcanoes make the rocks look different, and they also end up producing characteristic mineralogical differences. That the rocks look different means that plutonic and volcanic rocks can be distinguished with some ease even after geological processes have buried or exposed them and detached them from other kinds of evidence of their origin (like obvious nearby volcanoes). Thus plutonic rocks are "phaneritic," which means that crystals of the constituent minerals are large and evident to the eye, while volcanic rocks are "aphanitic," which means that crystals are only evident on microscopic examination. Both words come from the Greek verb phainô, which means "to appear" (as in phaenomena, "appearances"). We get this difference because in magma, the fluid state mixes together the constituent minerals. As a magma cools, the minerals separate, are drawn to their like, and begin to grow into crystals.

a representative plutonic rock would be granite. The Sierra Nevada Batholith. So does this mean that light and dark Basalt Mafic Gabbro rocks occur randomly as plutons or lava? No. Thus. The difference in color reflects the difference in the minerals that compose them. Obsidian is a volcanic glass. or mashed over millions of years. has subsequently floated up. And Rhyolite there are dark colored plutonic rocks. like gabbro. rhyolite has the same constituent minerals as granite. The mineralogical differences between plutonic and volcanic rocks are more complex and Plutonic Volcanic more revealing of the geological evolution of the earth. while that under continents is largely granitic. helping to raise the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. The surface of the flow immediately and visibly begins to cool. which then protects the remaining lava from solidifying in turn. On the other hand. Besides the difference between the large crystals of the former and the microscopic crystals of the latter. they contrast markedly in color. The crust under the oceans is largely basaltic. but they cannot sink. As it Silicic Granite happens. Despite popular stories about Atlantis sinking beneath the waves.not just lighter in color but also in density. Basalts are dark. The affinity corresponds to profound differences in the Earth's crust. which formed deep in the earth in the Mesozoic. broken up. while representative in Granite Basalt turn of volcanic rock would be basalt. we cannot simply say that plutonic rocks are light in color and volcanic rocks are dark. there are light colored volcanic rocks. What goes along with these is another characteristic of the minerals. However. like rhyolite (which contributes its name to an old Nevada mining town near Death Valley). Crystals do not have time to grow to any significant size and so are invisible to any unaided inspection of the rock. Quite the opposite. as in Hawaii. This is why the continents literally ride higher than the sea floor. We get both types with both types. Lava can easily flow for miles only when the top layer actually solidifies and forms a lava tube. lava erupted by a volcano immediately hits open air or even water and begins to cool quickly. these events are impossible. Granites are light in color. Despite the counterexamples. from near white to gray to pink. Plutonic Volcanic . The rock with the largest crystals I've ever seen (in my limited geological experience) was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. or California falling off into the Pacific. Granite is composed of materials that are lighter than those of basalt -. as gabbro does of basalt. which is a solid but whose structure is still that of a liquid. magma cools slowly and the crystals have time to grow large. even black in color. Continental crust is therefore less dense than is that under the oceans. and this provides important clues about the origin and history of the rocks. hot lava can be observed flowing out of volcanic vents. They can grow very large indeed in a very slow cooling pluton. Continents can be eroded. Lava can cool so quickly on the surface that it does not crystalize at all but forms a glass.In plutonic rocks. At non-explosive volcanoes. Thus. the initial impression of light/plutonic/granite and dark/volcanic/basalt does go back to a deep affinity between the types.

A double chain. Fe+2. Olivine is characterized by its independent ionic tetrahedron. The story of the rocks of the crust is thus paralleled by the story of silica. The olivines thus form a series from forsterite. Mg2SiO4. with a range of percentages of each in between. gives minerals in the amphibole group. The olivine series thus can be written. with a ratio of Si4O11. or most primitive. As the olivine-rich materials rise into the . Olivine thus looks like one of the most basic. Fe2SiO4. If it contains more than 90% olivine. It is not just that olivine contains magnesium and iron. Rocks like basalt get called mafic from the magnesium (Mg) and iron (Fe) in them. consists of a rock that. The silicate anion can be neutralized by two magnesium. cations (positively charged ions). See the discussion elsewhere for the coordination numbers produced by the relative sizes of such atoms. the ratio of oxygen to silicon is 4:1. but in olivine we get silicon surrounded by four atoms of oxygen. SiO2. Indeed. were single chains link together.e. it is dunite. minerals that underlies the Earth's crust. This already suggests a certain hierarchy. oxygen and silicon are the two most abundant elements in the earth's crust. silicon dioxide (SiO2). which between them would account for an ionic charge of -8. Since this is electrically neutral. Dunite can be nothing but olivine and pyroxene. a glass of quartz.5:1. Rocks like granite get called silicic or sialic from the silica and aluminum (Al) in them.familiar window glass. A single chain can form a ring. which in its pure state is the mineral quartz -. which characterized minerals that are clays and micas. which is largely weathered grains of quartz. as in beryl.The weight and color of basalt is due to the inclusion of magnesium and iron in its constituent minerals. the silicate anion. where the oxygen atom at each corner of the SiO4 tetrahedron is shared by another tetrahedron in a three-dimensional structure. Granite is light in color and density because it has little of those metals and substantially consists of aluminum and silica. the whole area between the crust and the core. we are approaching a limit. Peridotite contains from 40 to 100% the mineral olivine. It is now thought that the mantle of the Earth. As oxygens are eliminated. Peridotite is olivines mixed with pyroxenes or amphiboles. Mg+2. we get a molecule that becomes the negative ion (SiO4)-4. Be3Al2(Si6O18). each one linked to the next. i. and in a clay or mica 2.Fe)2SiO4. And the silicate tetrahedra can link together into a continuous sheet. This is approaching the 2:1 ratio of SiO2. just in a very different form than in granite. is electrically neutral. (Mg. silica occurs in olivine in a unique and simple form. Tetrahedra. we get minerals in the pyroxene group. where we can find it at or near the surface. with carbon only balancing with a charge of +4. Silicon dioxide. in a pryoxene (or beryl) 3:1. The oxygen atoms group around the silicon atom in a tetrahedron. however. or some mixture of the two. it can exist in pure form as the mineral quartz. or two iron. Si4O10.75:1. to fayalaite. is called peridotite. Granite is oversaturated with quartz and thus typically has pure quartz crystals in it. can begin to link together as oxygen atoms begin to share silicon atoms and thus form corners of two different tetrahedra. If we get a single chain of tetrahedra. is generally made from sand. These are ultramafic rocks (perhaps dunite is ultra-ultramafic). In olivine. which will exist in the framework silicates. in an amphibole 2. Thus. true silica. But basalt has silica in it also. where the ratio of silicon to oxygen is Si2O6.

and people arrive to look at it. Hawaiian volcanoes erupt a lot of olivine -. A magma that finally has the same composition as granite can erupt as a rhyolite. and you better run (but it may be too late). but the most common mineral in the Earth's crust. which means lighter and less dense. and silicate structures. No one is quite certain what any volcano will do. density. where some silicon atoms are replaced by aluminum atoms.if the pure mineral erodes out. Perhaps not at first. As each of these approaches closer to electric neutrality. Hawaiian lavas are the newborn rocks of the earth. however. But if there is an evolution in the reworking of the silicates. Continents. is quartz with certain impurities. basalt and water is carried down to the depths. when a volcano erupts in the Andes. The vents. and framework silicates. which used to be an island. The magnesium and iron are heavier and may rise more slowly or even settle. It may erupt andesite. as under Japan or the west coast of South America. namely feldspar. under either an oceanic or continental plate.crust as magma. the silicate tetrahedra can link together. perhaps the multiple reworking. The silicate materials. Granite is the result of the reworking. but the granite rock is pushed both down and up by the force of the collision. of previous crust. Mature continental volcanoes thus tend to produce catastrophic and dangerous explosive eruptions. sheets. which is why even volcanologists sometimes get killed doing their job. amphiboles. which is quite close to basalt in composition. it is no longer with the same mafic materials that were drawn down under the continent. St. We can easily imagine the silicate tetrahedra begin to link together in greater numbers. it can even form a green sand beach. The olivines evolve into pyroxenes. Oceanic crust is young. there is also an evolution in the framework silicates themselves. If such materials are buried. basalts and oceans. are lighter and rise faster. it needs fewer positive ions and thus become more silica rich. or subducted into the depths. as is happening right now where India. With pressure and the loss of positive ions. This may also happen were continental crust meets continental crust. SiO2. however. Nothing gets subducted there. however. When an oceanic plate is subducted. It melts and rises towards the surface. Feldspar is basically quartz. Since aluminum ions will only have a +3 charge instead of the +4 charge of silicon ions. the -2 . the material is reheated under pressure. Vesuvius or Mt. On the other hand. whose pressure then builds until there is an explosion. pipes. Silicacious magmas are more viscous than mafic ones. have a history. meets Asia. however. produced at mid-ocean ridges. Kilauea erupts. Pure quartz is pure quartz. with its more fluid and less explosive basaltic lavas. Thus. Now there is a clue about the relationships between granites and continents. but lighter and with more silica. they begin to evolve. and on the Moon. Besides color. Helens erupts. granite and basalt are also distinguished by different feldspars. It is straight out of the mantle. and dikes (cracks in the rock through which magma flows) tend to become blocked with the magma.

K+ & Na+. From sodium to potassium we do get the Alkali feldspars. while calcium is chemically somewhat different (an alkali earth) and forms doubly charged ions. The key to this peculiarity of the mineralogy is the size of the ions.93 and 0. while sodium.they are alkali metal elements -. sodium. The potassium ion is very large. KAlSi3O8 is relatively distinct as Orthoclase ("straight break" in Greek). Since potassium and sodium are chemically similar -. However. potassium ions will form cubic (8x) coordination. at 1. This produces crystals with different structures.99 Angstroms.40 Angstroms. Potassium feldspar. unlike the one for three with potassium and sodium). these will be potassium. With the O-2 ion at 1. respectively.oxygen ions will result in a net surplus negative charge. which can be distinguished by simple inspection. NaAlSi3O8 and calcium. so both of these arrangements make for the same tetrahedral (4x) coordination with oxygen. Silicon +4 ions themselves are only 0. or calcium. and aluminum +3 ions 0. CaAl2Si2O8.51 Angstroms. This then attracts positively charged ions. with similar crystal structure. as at right. but sodium and calcium ions will form octohedral (6x) coordination. . Ca+2 (which means that we need two aluminum atoms for two silicons. this is only part of the story. i. (AlO2)1 . but of similar size.e.33 Angstroms. we might expect potassium and sodium feldspars to be chemically different from calcium feldspar. They therefore do not make as natural a unit as the Plagioclase series. but these form a continuous series only when formed at high temperatures. while the sodium and calcium ions are not only smaller. as at left. feldspars form the Plagioclase Series ("slanting break" -both names describe characteristics of the crystals). 0.39 Angstroms in diameter. In feldspar.and tend to form singly charged ions. A smooth transition occurs from pure sodium to pure calcium in plagioclase.

After all. It wasn't until the early 90's that I got back. CaMg(CO3)2.feldspar. of course. A little geology can go a long way. As child. were unmistakable. granite itself is a mixtures of minerals -. is something else -. The feldspar in granite can be pink. In the Black Hills there are marvelous beds of pure pink quartz. "Why is there volcanic activity east of the Sierra?" cannot even be asked if the features cannot be recognized. but it is difficult to live in Hawaii without learning about these features. The answer. And all of this. Straus and Giroux.the place to start may be John McPhee's great Basin and Range [Farrar. off to the west. the last time I drove through the Valley was in 1971.As it happens. it was a revelation. Thus. The lava flows and cinder cones. An intermediate plutonic rock. beginning with the difference between Plutonic and Volcanic rocks. 1982]. of course. . The details go on from there. is diorite. Biotite mica is black. Calcium becomes an important element in continental rocks as it is used by organisms and deposited as calcium carbonate or calcite. Even quartz can have different colors from different impurities. We can have different feldspars and different micas. With some magnesium thrown in we can get dolomite. which means that granites can look rather different from one to the other. we are led into various issues of mineralogy and the evolution of the earth. was with the great Sierra Nevada. while muscovite is white. CaCO3. basalts and gabbros prefer calcium and granites and rhyolites prefer the akalis. with elevated calcium and reduced silica from grainite. mica. as in the granite from the Llano Uplift in Texas (with biotite). When I did. some of them red. It was a world that had previously been invisible. I do not know. Why calcium tends to stick with the more mafic minerals. in limestone. Before I lived in Hawaii. and its massive granitic batholith. and quartz. Questions like. I loved the drive up US 395 and US 6 into the Owens Valley in California. which is used in Texas government buildings and elsewhere.

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