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A flood basalt or trap basalt is the result of a giant volcanic eruption or series of eruptions that coats large stretches of land or the ocean floor with basalt lava. Flood basalts have occurred on continental scales (large igneous provinces) in prehistory, creating great plateaus and mountain ranges. Flood basalts have erupted at random intervals throughout geological history and are clear evidence that the Earth undergoes periods of enhanced activity rather than being in a uniform steady state.

One explanation for flood basalts is that they are caused by the combination of continental rifting and its associated decompression melting, in conjunction with a mantle plume also undergoing decompression melting, producing vast quantities of a tholeiitic basaltic magma. These have a very low viscosity, which is why they 'flood' rather than form taller volcanoes.

The Deccan Trapsmarker of central Indiamarker, the Siberian Traps and the Columbia River Plateaumarker of western North America are three regions covered by prehistoric flood basalts. The two largest flood basalt events in historic time have been at Eldgjámarker and Lakagigarmarker, both in Icelandmarker. The maria on the Moon are additional, even more extensive, flood basalts. Flood basalts on the ocean floor produce oceanic plateaus.

The surface covered by one eruption can vary from around 200,000 km² (Karoo) to 1,500,000 km² (Siberian Traps). The thickness can vary from 2000 metres (Deccan Traps) to 12,000 m (Lake Superiormarker). These are smaller than the original volumes due to erosion.

Flood basalts originate at between 100 and 400 km depth, in the asthenosphere. To obtain a partial fusion as large as that of the traps, expelling huge quantities of lava, it is necessary to have a large heat input. Such fusion can take place near a hotspot, resulting in a mixture of magma from the depths of the hotspot with superficial magma produced by a mantle plume.


Flood basalts have tholeiite and olivine compositions (according to the classification of Yoder and Tilley). The composition of the basalts from the Paraná is fairly typical of that of flood basalts; it contains phenocrysts occupying around 25% of the volume of rock, trapped in volcanic glass. These phenocrysts are pyroxenes (augite and pigeonite), plagioclases, opaque crystals such as titanomagnetite or ilmenite, and occasionally some olivine. Sometimes more differentiated volcanic products such andesites, dacites and rhyodacites have been observed, but only in small quantities at the top of former magma chambers.


Subaerial flood basalts can be of two kinds :
  • with a smooth or twisted surface : very compact surface; vesicles (gas bubbles) are rare. Degassing was easy (magma maintained at a high temperature and more fluid in a chamber of a size such that confining pressures did not confine gases to the melt before expulsion). Such lava flows may form underground rivers; when degassing fractures and conduits are present, very large flows may reach the surface.
  • with a chaotic surface : the basalt flood is very rich in bubbles of gas, with an irregular, fragmental surface. Degassing was difficult (less fluid magma expelled from a rift with no chance of progressive expansion in a hot chamber; the degassing took place closer to the surface where the flow forms a crust which cracks under the pressure of the gases in the flow itself and during more rapid cooling).
In the Massif Centralmarker in Auvergnemarker, there is a good example of chaotic basalt floods, produced by eruptions from Puy de la Vache and Puy de Lassolasmarker.

At depth, flows can crystallise more slowly, producing columnar jointing.


Geochemical analysis of the major oxides reveals a composition close to that of mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORB) but also close to that of ocean island basalts (OIB). These are in fact tholeiites with a silicon dioxide percentage close to 50%.

Two kinds of basaltic floods basalts can be distinguished :
  • those poor in P2O5 and in TiO2, called LPT (low phosphorus and titanium)
  • those rich in P2O5 and in TiO2, called HPT (high phosphorus and titanium)

The isotopic ratios 87Sr/86Sr and 206Pb/204Pb are different from that observed in general, which shows that the basalt flood magma was contaminated as it passed through the continental crust. It is this contamination that explains the difference between the two kinds of basalt mentioned above. The LPT type has an excess of elements from the crust such as potassium and strontium.

The content in incompatible elements of basaltic floods is lower than that of ocean island basalts, but higher than that of mid-ocean ridge basalts.

Other occurrences and implications

  • Basalt floods on the planet Venus are even larger than those on Earth (see: Volcanism on Venus). Their study may help understand the mechanisms responsible for these major geological events.

List of volcanic flood basalts

All major continental flood basalts (also known as traps) and oceanic plateaus, together forming a listing of large igneous provinces, which is provided below. The listing ranges from the smallest Columbia flood basalts to the largest, although not yet well characterized remnants of a possible trap in eastern Siberiamarker:

  1. The Columbia-Snake River flood basalts (see Columbia River Basalt Group)
  2. The Ethiopian and Yemen traps in the Ethiopian Highlandsmarker
  3. The Brito-Arctic province
  4. The Deccan Trapsmarker (India) 65 million years ago (end of Cretaceous Period)
  5. The Caribbean large igneous province
  6. The Kerguelen Plateau
  7. The Ontong Java–Manihiki–Hikurangi Plateau
  8. The Paraná and Etendeka trapsmarker (Brazil-Namibia)
  9. The Karoo and Ferrar provinces (South Africa-Antarctica)
  10. The Central Atlantic Magmatic Province
  11. The Siberian Traps (Russia) 251 million years ago (end of Permian)
  12. The Emeishan Traps (western China)
  13. The Viluy traps
  14. The Pre-Devonian traps
  15. The Coppermine River basalts (Northwest Territories, Canada)
  16. The Strand Fiord Formationmarker
  17. The Chilcotin Group (south-central British Columbia, Canada)
  18. The North Mountain Basalt

See also


  1. Sur l'âge des trapps basaltiques (On the ages of flood basalt events); Vincent E. Courtillota & Paul R. Renneb; Comptes Rendus Geoscience; Vol: 335 Issue: 1, January, 2003; pp: 113-140
  2. Summary.

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