1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gabbro

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21937051911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 11 — GabbroJohn Smith Flett

GABBRO, in petrology, a group of plutonic basic rocks, holocrystalline and usually rather coarse-grained, consisting essentially of a basic plagioclase felspar and one or more ferromagnesian minerals (such as augite, hornblende, hypersthene and olivine). The name was given originally in north Italy to certain coarsely crystalline dark green rocks, some of which are true gabbros, while others are serpentines. The gabbros are the plutonic or deep-seated representatives of the dolerites, basalts and diabases (also of some varieties of andesite) with which they agree closely in mineral composition, but not in minute structure. Of their minerals felspar is usually the most abundant, and is principally labradorite and bytownite, though anorthite occurs in some, while oligoclase and orthoclase have been found in others. The felspar is sometimes very clear and fresh, its crystals being for the most part short and broad, with rather irregular or rounded outlines. Albite twinning is very frequent, but in these rocks it is often accompanied by pericline twinning by which the broad or narrow albite plates are cut transversely by many thin, bright and dark bars as seen in polarized light. Equally characteristic of the gabbros is the alteration of the felspars to cloudy, semi-opaque masses of saussurite. These are compact, tough, devoid of cleavage, and have a waxy lustre and usually a greenish-white colour. When this substance can be resolved by the microscope it proves to consist usually of zoisite or epidote, with garnet and albite, but mixed with it are also chlorite, amphibole, serpentine, prehnite, sericite and other minerals. The augite is usually brown, but greenish, violet and colourless varieties may occur. Hypersthene, when present, is often strikingly pleochroic in colours varying from pink to bright green. It weathers readily to platy-pseudomorphs of bastite which are soft and yield low polarization colours. The olivine is colourless in itself, but in most cases is altered to green or yellow serpentine, often with bands of dark magnetite granules along its cleavages and cracks. Hornblende when primary is often brown, and may surround augite or be perthitically intergrown with it; original green hornblende probably occurs also, though it is more frequently secondary. Dark-brown biotite, although by no means an important constituent of these rocks, occurs in many of them. Quartz is rare, but is occasionally seen intergrown with felspar as micropegmatite. Among the accessory minerals may be mentioned apatite, magnetite, ilmenite, picotite and garnet.

A peculiar feature, repeated so constantly in many of the minerals of these rocks as to be almost typical of them, is the occurrence of small black or dark brown enclosures often regularly arranged parallel to certain crystallographic planes. Reflection of light from the surfaces of these minute enclosures produces a shimmering or Schiller. In augite or hypersthene the effect is that the surface of the mineral has a bronzy sub-metallic appearance, and polished plates seen at a definite angle yield a bright coppery-red reflection, but polished sections of the felspars may exhibit a brilliant play of colours, as is well seen in the Labrador spar, which is used as an ornamental or semi-precious stone. In olivine the black enclosures are not thin laminae, but branching growths resembling pieces of moss. The phenomenon is known as “schillerization”; its origin has been much discussed, some holding that it is secondary, while others regard these enclosures as original.

In many gabbros there is a tendency to a centric arrangement of the minerals, the first crystallized forming nuclei around which the others grow. Thus magnetite, apatite and picotite, with olivine, may be enclosed in augite, hornblende, and hypersthene, sometimes with a later growth of biotite, while the felspars occupy the interspaces between the clusters of ferromagnesian minerals. In some cases there are borders around olivine consisting of fibrous hornblende or tremolite and rhombic pyroxene (kelyphitic or ocellar structures); spinels and garnet may occur in this zone, and as it is developed most frequently where olivine is in contact with felspar it may be due to a chemical resorption at a late stage in the solidification of the rock. In some gabbros and norites reaction rims of fibrous hornblende are found around both hypersthene and diallage where these are in contact with felspar. Typical orbicular structure such as characterizes some granites and diorites is rare in the gabbros, though it has been observed in a few instances in Norway, California, &c.

In a very large number of the rocks of this group the plagioclase felspar has crystallized in large measure before the pyroxene, and is enveloped by it in ophitic manner exactly as occurs in the diabases. When these rocks become fine-grained they pass gradually into ophitic diabase and dolerite; only very rarely does olivine enclose felspar in this way. A fluxion structure or flow banding also can be observed in some of the rocks of this series, and is characterized by the occurrence of parallel sinuous bands of dark colour, rich in ferromagnesian minerals, and of lighter shades in which felspars predominate.

These basic holocrystalline rocks form a large and numerous class which can be subdivided into many groups according to their mineral composition; if we take it that typical gabbro consists of plagioclase and augites or diallage, norite of plagioclase and hypersthene, and troctolite of plagioclase and olivine, we must add to these olivine-gabbro and olivine-norite in which that mineral occurs in addition to those enumerated above. Hornblende-gabbros are distinctly rare, except when the hornblende has been developed from pyroxene by pressure and shearing, but many rocks may be described as hornblende- or biotite-bearing gabbro and norite, when they contain these ingredients in addition to the normal minerals plagioclase, augite and hypersthene. We may recognize also quartz-gabbro and quartz-norite (containing primary quartz or micropegmatite) and orthoclase-gabbro (with a little orthoclase). The name eucrite has been given to gabbros in which the felspar is mainly anorthite; many of them also contain hypersthene or enstatite and olivine, while allivalites are anorthite-olivine rocks in which the two minerals occur in nearly equal proportions; harrisites have preponderating olivine, anorthite felspar and a little pyroxene. In areas of gabbro there are often masses consisting nearly entirely of a single mineral, for example, felspar rocks (anorthosites), augite or hornblende rocks (pyroxenites and hornblendites) and olivine rocks (dunites or peridotites). Segregations of iron ores, such as ilmenite, usually with pyroxene or olivine, occur in association with some gabbro and anorthosite masses.

Some gabbros are exceedingly coarse-grained and consist of individual crystals several inches in length; such a type often form dikes or veins in serpentine or gabbro, and may be called gabbro-pegmatite. Very fine-grained gabbros, on the other hand, have been distinguished as beerbachites. Still more common is the occurrence of sheared, foliated or schistose forms of gabbro. In these the minerals have a parallel arrangement, the felspars are often broken down by pressure into a mosaic of irregular grains, while greenish fibrous or bladed amphibole takes the place of pyroxene and olivine. The diallage may be present as rounded or oval crystals around which the crushed felspar has flowed (augen-gabbro); or the whole rock may have a well-foliated structure (hornblende-schists and amphibolites). Very often a mass of normal gabbro with typical igneous character passes at its margins or along localized zones into foliated rocks of this kind, and every transition can be found between the different types. Some authors believe that the development of saussurite from felspar is also dependent on pressure rather than on weathering, and an analogous change may affect the olivine, replacing it by talc, chlorite, actinolite and garnet. Rocks showing changes of the latter type have been described from Switzerland under the name allalinites.

Rocks of the gabbro group, though perhaps not so common nor occurring in so great masses as granites, are exceedingly widespread. In Great Britain, for example, there are areas of gabbro in Shetland, Aberdeenshire, and other parts of the Highlands, Ayrshire, the Lizard (Cornwall), Carrock Fell (Cumberland) and St David’s (Wales). Most of these occur along with troctolites, norites, serpentine and peridotite. In Skye an interesting group of fresh olivine-gabbros is found in the Cuillin Hills; here also peridotites occur and there are sills and dikes of olivine-dolerite, while a great series of basaltic lavas and ash beds marks the site of volcanic outbursts in early Tertiary time. In this case it is clearly seen that the gabbros are the deep-seated and slowly crystallized representatives of the basalts which were poured out at the surfaces, and the dolerites which consolidated in fissures. The older gabbros of Britain, such as those of the Lizard, Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire, are often more or less foliated and show a tendency to pass into hornblende-schists and amphibolites. In Germany gabbros are well known in the Harz Mountains, Saxony, the Odenwald and the Black Forest. Many outcrops of similar rocks have been traced in the northern zones of the Alps, often with serpentine and hornblende-schist. They occupy considerable tracts of country in Norway and Sweden, as for instance in the vicinity of Bergen. The Pyrenees, Ligurian Alps, Dauphiné and Tuscany are other European localities for gabbro. In Canada great portions of the eastern portion of the Dominion are formed of gabbros, norite, anorthosite and allied rock types. In the United States gabbros and norites occur near Baltimore and near Peekskill on the Hudson river. As a rule each of these occurrences contains a diversity of petrographical types, which appear also in certain of the others; but there is often a well-marked individuality about the rocks of the various districts in which gabbros are found.

From an economic standpoint gabbros are not of great importance. They are used locally for building and for road-metal, but are too dark in colour, too tough and difficult to dress, to be popular as building stones, and, though occasionally polished, are not to be compared for beauty with the serpentines and the granites. Segregations of iron ores are found in connexion with many of them (Norway and Sweden) and are sometimes mined as sources of the metal.

Chemically the gabbros are typical rocks of the basic subdivision and show the characters of that group in the clearest way. They have low silica, much iron and magnesia, and the abundance of lime distinguishes them in a marked fashion from both the granites and the peridotites. A few analyses of well-known gabbros are cited here.

  SiO2 TiO2 Al2O3 FeO Fe2O3 MgO CaO Na2O K2O H2O
I. 49.63 1.75 16.18 12.03 1.92 5.38 9.33 1.89 0.81 0.55
II. 49.90 .. 16.04 .. 7.81 10.08 14.48 1.69 0.55 1.46
III. 45.73 .. 22.10 3.51 0.71 11.16 9.26 2.54 0.34 4.38
IV. 46.24 .. 29.85 2.12 1.30 2.41 16.24 1.98 0.18 ..

I. Gabbro, Radanthal, Harzburg; II. Gabbro, Penig, Saxony; III. Troctolite, Coverack, Cornwall; IV. Anorthosite, mouth of the Seine river, Bad Vermilion lake, Ontario, Canada.  (J. S. F.)