Igneous Rock Basalt

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Benjamin Andrews, Ph.D.

Geologist Ben Andrews on top of volcano Sant Maria, in Guatemala, looking down on Santiaguito.

Photographed by unknown source, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Benjamin Andrews is a research geologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who specializes in the study of volcanoes around the world. While growing up in Portland, Oregon, he often went hiking and backpacking in the nearby Cascade Range, home to Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes, and the Columbia River Gorge, lined with basalt. Prior to his senior year of high school, Andrews took a six-week geology field course with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; an experience that convinced him to make the study of volcanoes his career. After earning his doctorate from the University of Texas in 2009, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley before joining the Smithsonian in 2011. In 2012 Andrews and researchers from Italy, Germany, and the United States traveled to Guatemala to study ongoing changes to the active lava dome of Santa Maria, an erupting volcano. At the Smithsonian, he runs experiments that simulate pyroclastic density currents of materials spewing from volcano vents, and he also is doing ongoing research on volcanoes in California and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. Andrews and several of his colleagues participate in the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, which tracks the activity of volcanoes worldwide.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Volcanic rock quarry in Washington. Dark gray basalt covered by volcanic ash and soil. Location: White River Quarry, Enumclaw, WA.
Photographed by Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

About Extrusive Igneous Rocks

When molten rock (magma) reaches Earth's surface, it solidifies or hardens. Scientists call the resulting solid rocks "extrusive" igneous rocks. Extrusion is the process of pushing material out to the surface of the Earth's crust. At some volcanoes, the extrusive rock flows as lava across the ground before it hardens; the ripples in the lava may freeze in place. Hot, rapidly expanding gases within other volcanoes' vents can force the magma out explosively, forming pumice: low-density rock full of vesicles, or frozen bubbles. Extrusive igneous rocks are easy to find near many volcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens in Washington state. Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, home of two active volcanoes, contains lava flows that cooled only a few decades, or minutes, ago.

Block of marble from Maine, USA
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral Sciences

Mafic and Felsic Igneous Rocks

Igneous rocks may be classified by their overall color, which is a clue to their chemical and mineral composition. Geologists call most dark-colored igneous rocks, such as gabbro and basalt, mafic (pronounced "MAY-fic") rocks. In the word "mafic," the first syllable represents the element "magnesium" and the F stands for "ferric," an adjective describing the element iron. Mafic rocks have a relatively high content of iron, magnesium, and calcium and less silicon dioxide than other types of igneous rocks. They also begin to solidify at higher temperatures, usually above 1,000 degrees C (1,800 degrees F). By contrast, felsic rocks, such as granite and rhyolite, are lighter in color overall, though they may contain dark grains. "Felsic" is a word coined from the minerals "feldspar" and "silica" (quartz); felsic rocks contain 70 to 75 percent silica and do not start to crystallize until magma, or molten rock, cools to around 700 degrees C (1,300 degrees F). In other words, in a body of magma that is cooling down, the mafic minerals will tend to form before most of the felsic minerals.

View of the red-sandstone Smithsonian Castle at dusk, Washington, D.C., USA
Photo by Ken Rahaim, Smithsonian Institution

Rocks as Building Materials

Humans have long prized granite, an igneous rock rich in the minerals quartz and feldspar, as a building material because it does not crack easily and can be polished. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History building was built out of four different types of granite from four different states on the East Coast of the United States. Other rocks that make up the building include roof tiles of slate, and museum floors made of terrazzo, which is crushed marble and granite with cement filler. Elsewhere in Washington, D.C., marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss went into the Washington Monument; marble was used inside and outside the Lincoln Memorial; and red sandstone makes up the Smithsonian Castle on the other side of the National Mall. The nearby National Archives, Department of Justice, and Internal Revenue Service buildings have limestone facades and granite foundations.