Basaltic Lava: Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:15 What is Basaltic Lava?
  • 0:48 Origin of Basaltic Lava
  • 2:28 Basaltic Lava Morphologies
  • 3:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Amy Lange

Amy has taught university-level earth science courses and has a PhD in Geology.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Basaltic lavas, the most abundant lava type on earth, are the focus of this lesson. By the end, you should understand where basaltic lava comes from and some of its common forms.

What Is Basaltic Lava?

When you envision lava in your mind, you likely think about rivers of molten rock flowing over a landscape much like Hawaii. This idealized vision of lava is actually basaltic lava. Basaltic lava is the most abundant lava on earth and is the lava most commonly depicted in pictures and media. In this lesson, we'll learn what defines basaltic lava and some of the different forms it takes.

Basaltic lava is another term for mafic lava. Mafic lava is molten rock that is enriched in iron and magnesium and low in silica. When mafic lava cools on the earth's surface, it forms basalt, which is why mafic lava is commonly called 'basaltic lava.'

The Origin of Basaltic Lava

You may be wondering, why should any one type of lava be more prevalent than another? To understand the answer to this question, we must first understand the origin of basaltic lava. The mantle of the earth is constantly convecting due to the heat from the planet's interior. Mafic magma is formed within the earth when a portion of the earth's mantle is melted. Remember that magma is the term for underground lava.

The earth's mantle can melt by three methods: adding heat to the mantle, changing its composition, or decreasing its pressure. The melting point of a rock is the temperature and pressure at which a rock will begin to melt. Adding heat to the mantle is the most obvious way to exceed the melting point of the rock.

Changing the composition will alter the location of the melting point and will often make a rock melt at a lower temperature. This is the same reason we add salt to icy roads -- the salt acts to lower the melting point of the ice and hopefully will cause the ice to melt from the roads.

The most common method of making basaltic magma is by decreasing the pressure of the mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are extremely hot, and the only reason they do not melt is that they are being held at high pressures within the earth. When these rocks ascend toward the surface, the pressure decreases and allows the rocks to begin melting. This process is responsible for the volcanism at mid-ocean ridges, which are the most volcanically active features on earth.

Basaltic lavas are so abundant because they are the product of melting the mantle, which makes up the majority of the earth's volume. Almost all volcanism starts with melts that begin in the mantle, which is why basaltic melts are so plentiful.

Basaltic Lava Morphologies

Since much of our understanding and knowledge about basaltic lavas has come from in-depth study of the Hawaiian Islands, the two most common basaltic morphologies on land have Hawaiian names. In geology, morphology means the physical shape of a landform or feature.

Pahoehoe is basaltic lava that exhibits a smooth, sometimes ropey, texture. 'A'a is chunky and blocky basaltic lava. There is no usually no compositional difference between pahoehoe and 'a'a. Instead, the difference in morphology is due to their flow rate and cooling rate. Pahoehoe experiences a slower cooling rate and velocity. On the other hand, 'a'a cools so quickly that the flow is literally breaking apart as it's rapidly cooling and moving.

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Additional Activities

Basaltic Lava Research

In this activity, students will be creating a poster about one example of basaltic lava. Students will choose a location where basaltic lava is found, usually released from a shield volcano, and research how the volcano looks, when it has erupted and how it affects humans. They will create a poster with an image of the volcano and information about the lava as well. Encourage students to start by looking up basaltic lava locations, then choosing a specific shield volcano to focus on. Students should credible sources, such as the USGS, colleges and universities, news outlets, or articles written by scientists.


For example, a student might choose to research Mauna Loa, a shield volcano in Hawaii. They could research the times that Mauna Loa has erupted, as well as its spiritual importance to the people of Hawaii. They can use a single image of Mauna Loa on their poster, or a collection of smaller images that show both the volcano and the basaltic lava flowing.

Student Directions:

Basaltic lava is one of the most common types of lava on Earth, and in this activity you're going to be researching a specific example of it. Basaltic lava typically comes from shield volcanoes, and your job in this poster assignment is to select one shield volcano to research. You'll learn about the volcano's eruption history, how it affects humans, and how the volcano looks. You'll assemble all your information into a colorful, attractive poster. To make sure your poster meets the requirements, check out the criteria for success below.

Criteria For Success:

  • Poster is large, colorful, attractive and easy to read
  • Poster has at least one image of the volcano and one image of the basaltic lava
  • Poster includes information about the eruptions of the volcano
  • Poster includes information about the volcano and its lava affect humans
  • Poster includes at least three facts about basaltic lava

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