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Weathering is what takes place when a body of rock is exposed to the “weather” — in other words, to the forces and conditions that exist at Earth’s surface. Except for volcanic rocks and some sedimentary rocks, most rocks are formed at some depth within the crust. There they experience relatively constant temperature, high pressure, no contact with the atmosphere, and little or no moving water. Once a rock is exposed at the surface, which is what happens when the overlying rock is eroded, conditions change dramatically. Temperatures vary widely, there is much less pressure, oxygen and other gases are plentiful, and in most climates, water is abundant.
Weathering includes two main processes that are entirely different. One is the mechanical breakdown of rock into smaller fragments, and the other is the chemical change of the minerals within the rock to forms that are stable in the surface environment. Mechanical weathering provides fresh surfaces for attack by chemical processes, and chemical weathering weakens the rock so that it is more susceptible to mechanical weathering. Together, these processes create two significant products, one being the sedimentary clasts and ions in solution that can eventually become sedimentary rock, and the other being the soil that is necessary for our existence on Earth.
Intrusive igneous rocks form at depths of several hundreds of meters to several tens of kilometers. Sediments are turned into sedimentary rocks only when other sediments bury them to depths more than several hundreds of meters. Most metamorphic rocks are formed at depths of kilometers to tens of kilometers. Weathering cannot even begin until these rocks are uplifted through various processes of mountain building — most of which are related to plate tectonics — and the overlying material has been eroded, and the rock is exposed as an outcrop.
The critical agents of mechanical weathering are:
When a mass of rock is exposed by weathering and removal of the overlying rock, there is a decrease in the confining pressure on the rock, and the rock expands. This unloading promotes cracking of the rock, known as exfoliation.
Granitic rock tends to exfoliate parallel to the exposed surface because the rock is typically homogenous, and it does not have predetermined planes along which it must fracture. Sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, on the other hand, tend to exfoliate along predetermined planes.
Frost wedging, also called ice wedging, is the process by which water seeps into cracks in a rock, expands on freezing, and thus enlarges the cracks. The effectiveness of frost wedging is related to the frequency of freezing and thawing. Frost wedging is most effective in mountainous climates. In warm areas where freezing is infrequent, in very cold areas where thawing is infrequent, or in arid areas, where there is little water to seep into cracks, the role of frost wedging is limited.
In many mountainous regions, the transition between freezing nighttime temperatures and thawing daytime temperatures is frequent — tens to hundreds of times a year. Even in warm coastal areas, freezing and thawing transitions are common at higher elevations. A common feature in areas of active frost wedging is a talus slope — a fan-shaped deposit of fragments removed by frost wedging from the steep rocky slopes above.
A related process, frost heaving, takes place within unconsolidated materials on gentle slopes. In this case, water in the soil freezes and expands, pushing the overlying material up. Frost heaving is responsible for winter damage to roads all over North America.
When saltwater seeps into rocks and then evaporates on a hot sunny day, salt crystals grow within cracks and pores in the rock. The growth of these crystals exerts pressure on the rock and can push grains apart, causing the rock to weaken and break. Salt weathering can also occur away from the coast because most environments have some salt in them.
The effects of plants and animals are significant in mechanical weathering. Roots can force their way into even the tiniest cracks, and then they exert tremendous pressure on the rocks as they grow, widening the cracks and breaking the rock. Although animals do generally not burrow through solid rock, they can excavate and remove huge volumes of soil, and thus expose the rock to weathering by other mechanisms.
Mechanical weathering is greatly facilitated by erosion, which is the removal of weathering products, allowing for the exposure of more rock for weathering. On the steep rock faces at the top of the cliff, rock fragments have been broken off by ice wedging, and then removed by gravity. This is a form of mass wasting. Other essential agents of erosion that also have the effect of removing the products of weathering include water in streams, ice in glaciers, and waves on the coasts.
Chemical weathering results from chemical changes to minerals that become unstable when they are exposed to surface conditions. The kinds of changes that take place are highly specific to the mineral and the environmental conditions. Some minerals, like quartz, are virtually unaffected by chemical weathering, while others, like feldspar, are easily altered. In general, the degree of chemical weathering is most significant in warm and wet climates and least in cold and dry climates. The important characteristics of surface conditions that lead to chemical weathering are the presence of water (in the air and on the ground surface), the abundance of oxygen, and the presence of carbon dioxide, which produces weak carbonic acid when combined with water.
THE PRODUCTS OF WEATHERING AND EROSION
The products of weathering and erosion are the unconsolidated materials that we find around us on slopes, beneath glaciers, in stream valleys, on beaches, and in deserts. The nature of these materials — their composition, size, the degree of sorting, and degree of rounding — is determined by the type of rock that is being weathered, the nature of the weathering, the erosion, and transportation processes, and the climate.
A summary of the weathering products of some of the common minerals present in rocks is provided below.
The produces created from weathering range widely in size and shape depending on the processes involved. If and when deposits like these are turned into sedimentary rocks, the textures of those rocks will vary significantly. Importantly, when we describe sedimentary rocks that formed millions of years in the past, we can use those properties to make inferences about the conditions that existed during their formation.
Introduction to Physical Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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