Tholeiitic basalts (oceanic tholeiites) that form most of the deeply submerged volcanic features in the oceans are characterized by extremely low amounts of Ba, K, P, Pb, Sr, Th, U, and Zr as well as Fe2O3/FeO < 0.2 and Na/K > 10 in unaltered samples. Oceanic tholeiites also have rare earth abundance-distribution patterns and ratios of K/Rb (1300) and Sr87/Sr86 (0.702) similar to or overlapping those of calcium-rich (basaltic) achondritic meteorites. The close compositional similarities between the oceanic tholeiites and calcium-rich achondrites indicates the relatively primitive nature of the oceanic tholeiites.
In contrast, the alkali-rich basalts that cap submarine and island volcanoes are relatively enriched in Ba, K, La, Nb, P, Pb, Pb206, Rb, Fe2O3, Sr, Sr87, Ti, Th, U, and Zr; i.e. in the same elements and isotopes that are concentrated in the sialic continental crusts by factors of 5 to 1000 more than the amounts readily inferred in the upper mantle.
These analytical data coupled with the field relationships indicate that the alkali-rich basalts are derivative rocks, fractionated from the oceanic tholeiites by processes of magmatic differentiation, and that the oceanic tholeiites are the principal or only primary magma generated in the upper mantle under the oceans.
Studies of the abundances and compositions of continental basalts show that essentially identical tholeiitic lavas, contaminated with Si, K, and the chemically coherent trace elements and radiogenic isotopes from the sial, also have been the predominant or only magma generated in the mantle under the continents.
The chemical properties of oceanic tholeiites suggest that the upper mantle probably contains less than (in parts per million): Ba, 10; K, 1000; Pb, 0.4; Rb, 10; Th, 0.2; and U, 0.1. The Sr87/Sr86 must be less than 0.7015; Th/U about 2; K/Rb about 1500–2000; and Fe2O3/FeO less than 0.1.
The integration of field and petrochemical data with seismic, density, and shock-wave studies suggests that the oceanic tholeiites are either complete melts of the upper mantle or are generated from a mix of this tholeiite and a magnesium-rich peridotite or dunite in proportions up to perhaps 1:4.
The Mohorovičić discontinuity under the oceans appears to mark the transition downward from a largely tholeiitic oceanic crust to either tholeiite reconstituted to blueschist or greenschist or to the ultramafic residue left after expulsion of oceanic tholeiite.