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3.6: Igneous Rocks

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    Magma is molten rock inside the earth. It is the source of all igneous rock. Because the earth was largely molten at its origin, magma may be considered the beginning of the rock cycle. Igneous rocks contain information about how they originate. By carefully analyzing igneous rocks and interpreting the information they contain, we can deduce processes that take place within the earth and we can understand volcanic processes that take place on the earth’s surface.

    The study of igneous rocks enables us to understand the igneous part of geologic history. For example, at the end of the Triassic period, 245 million years ago, the greatest mass extinction ever known took place, wiping out more life forms on earth than the mass extinction that led to the demise of dinosaurs 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous. At the end of the Triassic, a huge amount of basalt erupted onto the earth. Many geologists think that the gases and particles released into the atmosphere by those eruptions may have been a major factor in the end of Triassic mass extinction. Those scientists are studying the information contained in the basalts of that age to further test their hypotheses.

    Igneous rocks contain three essential sources of information: their minerals, their overall chemical composition, and their igneous texture. Igneous rock names are based on specific combinations of these features. Igneous rocks also contain isotopic information that is used in determining absoloute ages and in further characterizing the origin of the magma. Special equipment and expertise is required to conduct isotopic and precise chemical analyses. Fortunately, with some basic training and practice anyone can learn to identify the minerals, composition and texture of an igneous rock; name the rock; and interpret key information about its origins.

    All igneous rocks, other than pure volcanic glass, contain minerals. The minerals provide details on the chemical composition of the rock, and on the conditions in which the magma originated, cooled, and solidified. Geologists conduct chemical analyses of minerals to determine the temperatures and pressures at which they formed and to identify the dissolved gases and chemical elements that were present in the magma.

    Most magmas are predominantly silicate liquids, composed largely of silica tetrahedra that have not yet bonded together to become silicate minerals. The chemical composition of an igneous rock tells us about the origin of the magma, beginning with which type of rock melted within the earth to form the magma in the first place, and how deep in the earth the melting occurred. Once magma has formed inside the earth, its composition may be modified. Minerals can grow from the magma and separate from it, changing the chemistry of the remaining liquid. Or, one body of magma can mix with another that has a different composition.

    Magmas come in a range of compositions, from rich in silica and poor and iron and magnesium (felsic) to moderate in silica and high in iron and magnesium (mafic). Felsic igneous rocks, as a whole rock, tend to have light colors or shades: white, pink, light brown, light gray. Mafic igneous rocks, on the whole, tend to be dark colored, commonly black or dark gray. Most mafic magma originates by melting of rocks in the mantle that are extremely rich in iron and magnesium. Felsic magma usually originates in the crust or by the shedding of mafic minerals as magma rises through the crust.

    The igneous texture tells us how the magma cooled and solidified. Magma can solidify into igneous rock in several different ways, each way resulting in a different igneous texture. Magma may stay within the earth, far below ground level, and crystallize into plutonic igneous rock (also known as intrusive igneous rock). Or, magma may flow out onto surface of the earth as a lava flow. Another way that igneous rock forms is by magma erupting explosively into the air and falling to earth in pieces known as pyroclastic material, also called tephra. Lava flows and pyroclastic material are volcanic igneous rock (also known as extrusive igneous rock).

    The igneous texture of a rock is not how it feels in your hand, not whether it is rough or smooth. The igneous texture describes whether the rock has mineral crystals or is glassy, the size of the mineral grains, and the rock’s porosity (empty spaces).

    This basics page focuses on igneous rocks and gives you the background needed to understand the terms used in the igneous rock classification table.


    There are two main types of igneous rocks: (1) plutonic (intrusive) rocks, which form by solidification of molten rock deep within the earth, and (2) volcanic (extrusive) rocks, which solidify from molten rock erupted to the surface. Volcanic rocks break down into two more categories: (a) lava flows and (b) tephra (pyroclastic material).

    Igneous rocks are classified on the basis of their composition and their texture. Magma, and the igneous rock it becomes, has a range of chemical compositions.For example, basalt is a mafic lava flow rock which originates from melting of the upper mantle. The way that magma turns into a solid rock gives it a distinctive igneous texture. For example, magma that becomes a pluton by slowly crystallizing (growing minerals) within the crust will develop a very different texture from magma that becomes an ash flow tuff as a result of semi-molten volcanic ash spewing across a landscape and then settling down and welding itself together into solid rock.

    Igneous Rock Textures

    The texture of an igneous rock results from the cooling, crystallization, and solidification history of the magma that formed it. Once you know the texture of an igneous rock, you can usually deduce from the texture whether it was intrusive or extrusive, lava flow or pyroclastic.

    Texture in this context is not whether the rock feels rough or smooth to the touch. Igneous texture terms have objective definitions that refer only to igneous rocks.

    Volcanic Rocks

    Let us start with textures associated with rocks formed by lava flows. Magmas that erupt as lava onto the earth’s surface cool and solidify rapidly. Rapid cooling results in an aphanitic igneous texture, in which few or none of the individual minerals are big enough to see with the naked eye. This is sometimes referred to as a fine-grained igneous texture.

    Some lava flows, however, are not purely fine-grained. If some mineral crystals start growing while the magma is still underground and cooling slowly, those crystals grow to a large enough size to be easily seen, and the magma then erupts as a lava flow, the resulting texture will consist of coarse-grained crystals embedded in a fine-grained matrix. This texture is called porphyritic.

    If lava has bubbles of gas escaping from it as it solidifies, it will end up with “frozen bubble holes” in it. These “frozen bubble holes” are called vesicles, and the texture of a rock containing them is said to be vesicular.

    If so many bubbles are escaping from lava that it ends up containing more bubble holes than solid rock, the resulting texture is said to be frothy. Pumice is the name of a type of volcanic rock with a frothy texture.

    If lava cools extremely quickly, and has very little water dissolved in it, it may freeze into glass, with no minerals (glass by definition is not a mineral, because it does not have a crystal lattice). Such a rock is said to have a glassy texture. Obsidian is the common rock that has a glassy texture, and is essentially volcanic glass. Obsidian is usually black.

    Now let us briefly consider textures of tephra or pyroclastic rocks. Like lava flow rocks, these are also extrusive igneous rocks. However, instead of originating from lava that flowed on the earth’s surface, tephra is volcanic material that was hurled through the air during a volcanic eruption.

    A pyroclastic rock made of fine-grained volcanic ash may be said to have a fine-grained, fragmental texture. Volcanic ash consists mainly of fine shards of volcanic glass. It may be white, gray, pink, brown, beige, or black in color, and it may have some other fine crystals and rock debris mixed in. The term “fine-grained, fragmental” is easy to confuse with the term fine-grained (aphanitic). An equivalent term that is less ambiguous is tuffaceous. Rocks made of volcanic ash are called tuff.

    A pyroclastic rock with many big chunks of material in it that were caught up in the explosive eruption is said to have a coarse-grained, fragmental texture. However, a better word that will avoid confusion is to say it has a brecciated texture, and the rock is usually called a volcanic breccia. The bigger chunks of material in a volcanic breccia are more than 1 cm (5/8 inch) across, and sometimes are much bigger.

    Plutonic Rocks

    When magma cools slowly underground and solidifies there, it usually grows crystals big enough to be seen easily with the naked eye. These visible crystals comprise the whole rock, not just part of it as in a porphyritic, fine-grained igneous rock. The texture of an igneous rock made up entirely of crystals big enough to be easily seen with the naked eye is phaneritic. Phaneritic texture is sometimes referred to as coarse-grained igneous texture. Granite, the most well known example of an intrusive igneous rock, has a phaneritic texture.

    Sometimes an intrusion of magma that is crystallizing slowly underground releases large amounts of hot water. The water is released from the magma as extremely hot fluid with lots of chemical elements dissolved in it. This hydrothermal fluid gets into cracks and voids in the earth’s crust, and as it cools it may grow very large minerals from the dissolved chemical elements. A rock consisting of such large minerals is said to have a pegmatitic texture, which means the average mineral size is greater than 1 cm in diameter (and sometimes is much larger). The name of an igneous rock with a pegmatitic texture is pegmatite. Pegmatites are commonly found in or near the margins of bodies of granite.

    Igneous Rock Compositions

    The most common igneous compositions can be summarized in three words: mafic (basaltic), intermediate (andesitic), and felsic (granitic).

    Felsic composition is higher in silica (SiO2) and low in iron (Fe) and magnesium (Mg). Mafic composition is higher in iron and magnesium and lower in silica. Intermediate compositions contain silica, iron, and magnesium in amounts that are intermediate to felsic and mafic compositions.

    Composition and Color

    Composition influences the color of igneous rocks. Felsic rocks tend to be light in color (white, pink, tan, light brown, light gray). Mafic rocks tend to be dark in color (black, very dark brown, very dark gray, dark green mixed with black). The color distinction comes from the differences in iron and magnesium content. Iron and, to a lessor extent, magnesium give minerals a darker color. Intermediate igneous rocks tend to have intermediate shades or colors (green, gray, brown).

    The association between color and composition is useful because before you can name and interpret an igneous rock you need to determine both its texture AND its composition. If you have an aphanitic igneous rock, which has no crystals big enough to see without a microscope, you can estimate its composition based on its color: pink or nearly white, felsic; medium gray, intermediate; very dark or black, mafic.

    This color rule works most of the time but there are two problems that you need to keep in mind. First, the rule does not work for glassy igneous rocks. Obsidian, which is volcanic glass, is usually black, even though it has a felsic composition. That is because a tiny amount of iron, too little to color minerals very darkly, can color glass darkly.

    The second problem is that when igneous rocks have been exposed to air and water for a long time, they start to weather, which changes their color. Geologists working in the field carry a rock hammer, so they can break off the weathered, outer parts of rocks to see the “fresh,” unweathered rock inside.

    If you can see and identify the minerals in an igneous rock, you can gain further information about the igneous composition. Igneous rocks with quartz in them are usually felsic. Igneous rocks with olivine in them are usually mafic. Igneous rocks with neither quartz nor olivine in them are most commonly intermediate.


    Once you have determined the texture and composition of an igneous rock, you can name it and you can also say something important about how it formed. For example, a coarse-grained, felsic igneous rock is not only a granite, it is an intrusive igneous rock that formed from slow cooling and crystallization of a body of magma within the earth’s crust. The intrusion of large bodies of granite – batholiths – is usually part of the origin of a mountain range. Similarly, a fine-grained, mafic igneous rock is not only a basalt, it is an extrusive igneous rock that formed from rapid cooling and crystallization of a lava flow at earth’s surface.


    Igneous rocks can be distinguished from sedimentary rocks by the lack of beds, lack of fossils, and lack of rounded grains in igneous rocks, and the presence of igneous textures. A granite, for example, can be distinguished from a sandstone because rather than being a mixture of weathered, rounded grains compressed and cemented together, granite consists of a small number of minerals in shiny black, white, or pink colors, with excellent crystal forms, grown together into a completely interlocking pattern. Sandstones, by contrast, have sedimentary bedding (layers) and consist of rounded grains with some spaces between the grains, which you can see with a hand lens or magnifying glass.

    Igneous rocks can be distinguished from most regional metamorphic rocks by the lack of foliation (layering) in igneous rocks. Unfoliated metamorphic rocks lack igneous textures and usually contain minerals not found in igneous rocks.

    Granite may look like gneiss at first glance, but granite has no layering, no preferred orientation of the minerals. The minerals in a granite grow randomly in all directions, rather than tending to grow parallel to each other.

    Igneous rocks are classified on the basis of their texture and their composition. See the previous sections for descriptions of the different igneous textures and compositions.

    The igneous rock classification tables that accompany this section are arranged on the basis of igneous textures first, and further broken down on the basis of igneous composition. Remember that igneous composition is estimated on the basis of color: light = felsic composition, medium = intermediate composition, and dark = mafic composition.

    Igneous Rock Classification

    Pegmatitic Texture (Extremely Coarse-Grained)
    Originates from water-rich intrusions, which cool and crystallize underground
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic Na-plagioclase, orthoclase, quartz, biotite, amphibole, muscovite pegmatite
    Phanertitic Texture (Coarse-Grained)
    Originates in deep intrusions, which cool and crystallize slowly underground
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic Na-plagioclase, orthoclase, quartz, biotite, amphibole, muscovite granite
    intermediate Na-plagioclase, quartz, orthoclase, amphibole, biotite granodiorite
    Na-plagioclase, amphibole, pyroxene, biotite diorite
    mafic Ca-plagioclase, pyroxene, olivine, amphibole gabbro
    Aphanitic Texture (Fine-Grained)
    Originates in lava flows (or very shallow intrusions), which cool rapidly
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic Na-plagioclase, orthoclase, quartz, biotite, amphibole, muscovite rhyolite
    intermediate Na-plagioclase, quartz, orthoclase, amphibole, biotite dacite
    Na-plagioclase, amphibole, pyroxene, biotite andesite
    mafic Ca-plagioclase, pyroxene, olivine, amphibole basalt
    Frothy Texture (Porous, Pumiceous)
    Originates in gas-charged volcanic eruptions, commonly pyroclastic
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic glass (may contain a few minerals typical of felsic rocks) pumice
    mafic glass (may contain a few mineral typical of mafic rocks) scoria
    Note: Basalt with fewer holes, known as vesicles, is called vesicular basalt. Scoria has more holes and may be black or red in color.
    Glassy Texture
    Originates from cooling too rapid to allow crystal lattices to form
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic to mafic glass (no minerals) obsidian
    Note: Obsidian that is transparent at thin edges and has good conchoidal fracture is probably felsic.
    Fragmental Texture—Coarse (Contains Large Rock Fragments)
    Originates from pyroclastic (explosive) eruptions
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic to mafic variable (depending on rock fragments and ash content) volcanic breccia
    Fragmental Texture—Fine (Mainly Volcanic Ash)
    Originates from pyroclastic (explosive) eruptions
    Composition Most Common Minerals Rock Name
    felsic may contain a few minerals typical of felsic rocks rhyolitic tuff
    medium may contain a few minerals typical of intermediate rocks andesitic tuff
    mafic may contain a few minerals typical of mafic rocks andesitic tuff


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