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Weathering is the breaking down of Earth's rocks, soils and minerals through direct contact with the planet's atmosphere. Weathering occurs in situ, or "with no movement", and thus should not be confused with erosion, which involves the movement of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, wind and gravity.

Two important classifications of weathering processes exist — physical and chemical weathering. Mechanical or physical weathering involves the breakdown of rocks and soils through direct contact with atmospheric conditions, such as heat, water, ice and pressure. The second classification, chemical weathering, involves the direct effect of atmospheric chemicals or biologically produced chemicals (also known as biological weathering) in the breakdown of rocks, soils and minerals.[1]

The materials left over after the rock breaks down combined with organic material creates soil. The mineral content of the soil is determined by the parent material, thus a soil derived from a single rock type can often be deficient in one or more minerals for good fertility, while a soil weathered from a mix of rock types (as in glacial, aeolian or alluvial sediments) often makes more fertile soil.

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Physical weathering

Physical weathering is the only process that causes the disintegration of rocks without chemically changing it. The primary process in physical weathering is abrasion (the process by which clasts and other particles are reduced in size). However, chemical and physical weathering often go hand in hand. For example, cracks exploited by physical weathering will increase the surface area exposed to chemical action. Furthermore, the chemical action at minerals in cracks can aid the disintegration process.

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Thermal expansion

Thermal expansion, also known as exfoliation, insolation weathering or thermal shock, often occurs in areas, like deserts, where there is a large diurnal temperature range. The temperatures soar high in the day, while dipping greatly at night. As the rock heats up and expands by day, and cools and contracts by night, stress is often exerted on the outer layers. The stress causes the peeling off of the outer layers of rocks in thin sheets. Though this is caused mainly by temperature changes, thermal expansion is enhanced by the presence of moisture. Forest fires and range fires are also known to cause significant weathering of rocks and boulders exposed along the ground surface. Intense, localized heat can rapidly expand a boulder, causing its surface to exfoliate or spall. The weathering process was evident especially after the massive wildfires in Wyoming that occurred in 1988.

Frost disintegration

This process can also be called frost shattering, frost-wedging or freeze-thaw weathering. This type of weathering is common in mountain areas where the temperature is around the freezing point of water. Moist soils expand or frost heave upon freezing as a result of water migrating along from unfrozen areas via thin films to collect at growing ice lenses. This same phenomena occurs within pore spaces of rocks. The ice accumulations grow larger as they attract liquid water from the surrounding pores. The ice crystal growth weakens the rocks which, in time, break up.[2] It is caused by the expansion of ice when water freezes, so putting considerable stress on the walls of containment. The same process acts on roads, creating potholes after the thaw.

Freeze induced weathering action occurs mainly in environments where there is a lot of moisture, and temperatures frequently fluctuate above and below freezing point—that is, mainly alpine and periglacial areas. An example of rocks susceptible to frost action is chalk, which has many pore spaces for the growth of ice crystals. This process can be seen in Dartmoor where it results in the formation of tors. When water that has entered the joints freezes, the ice formed strains the walls of the joints and causes the joints to deepen and widen. When the ice thaws, water can flow further into the rock. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles weaken the rocks which, over time, break up along the joints into angular pieces. The angular rock fragments gather at the foot of the slope to form a talus slope (or scree slope). The splitting of rocks along the joints into blocks is called block disintegration. The blocks of rocks that are detached are of various shapes depending on rock structure.

Pressure release

Pressure Release of granite.

In pressure release, also known as unloading, overlying materials (not necessarily rocks) are removed (by erosion, or other processes), which causes underlying rocks to expand and fracture parallel to the surface. Often the overlying material is heavy, and the underlying rocks experience high pressure under them, for example, a moving glacier. Pressure release may also cause exfoliation to occur.

Intrusive igneous rocks (e.g. granite) are formed deep beneath the Earth's surface. They are under tremendous pressure because of the overlying rock material. When erosion removes the overlying rock material, these intrusive rocks are exposed and the pressure on them is released. The outer parts of the rocks then tend to expand. The expansion sets up stresses which cause fractures parallel to the rock surface to form. Over time, sheets of rock break away from the exposed rocks along the fractures. Pressure release is also known as "exfoliation" or "sheeting"; these processes result in batholiths and granite domes, an example of which is Dartmoor.

Hydraulic action

This is when water (generally from powerful waves) rushes into cracks in the rockface rapidly. This traps a layer of air at the bottom of the crack, compressing it and weakening the rock. When the wave retreats, the trapped air is suddenly released with explosive force. The explosive release of highly pressurized air cracks away fragments at the rockface and widens the crack itself.

Salt-crystal growth (haloclasty)

The surface pattern on this pedestal rock is honeycomb weathering, caused by salt crystallisation. This example is at Yehliu, Taiwan.
Salt weathering of building stone on the island of Gozo, Malta
Salt weathering of sandstone near Qobustan, Azerbaijan.

Salt crystallization, otherwise known as haloclasty, causes disintegration of rocks when saline (see salinity) solutions seep into cracks and joints in the rocks and evaporate, leaving salt crystals behind. These salt crystals expand as they are heated up, exerting pressure on the confining rock.

Salt crystallization may also take place when solutions decompose rocks (for example, limestone and chalk) to form salt solutions of sodium sulfate or sodium carbonate, of which the moisture evaporates to form their respective salt crystals.

The salts which have proved most effective in disintegrating rocks are sodium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, and calcium chloride. Some of these salts can expand up to three times or even more.

It is normally associated with arid climates where strong heating causes strong evaporation and therefore salt crystallization. It is also common along coasts. An example of salt weathering can be seen in the honeycombed stones in sea wall. Honeycomb is a type of tafoni, a class of cavernous rock weathering structures, which likely develop in large part by chemical and physical salt weathering processes.

Biological Weathering

Living organisms may contribute to mechanical weathering (as well as chemical weathering, see 'biological' weathering below). Lichens and mosses grow on essentially bare rock surfaces and create a more humid chemical microenvironment. The attachment of these organisms to the rock surface enhances physical as well as chemical breakdown of the surface microlayer of the rock. On a larger scale seedlings sprouting in a crevice and plant roots exert physical pressure as well as providing a pathway for water and chemical infiltration. Burrowing animals and insects disturb the soil layer adjacent to the bedrock surface thus further increasing water and acid infiltration and exposure to oxidation processes.

Chemical weathering

Comparison of unweathered (left) and weathered (right) limestone.

Chemical weathering involves the change in the composition of rocks, often leading to a 'break down' in its form. This is done through a combination of water and various chemicals to create an acid which directly breaks down the material.

Chemical weathering is a gradual and ongoing process as the mineralogy of the rock adjusts to the near surface environment. New or secondary minerals develop from the original minerals of the rock. In this the processes of oxidation and hydrolysis are most important.

Dissolution

Rainfall is acidic because atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the rainwater producing weak carbonic acid. In unpolluted environments, the rainfall pH is around 5.6. Acid rain occurs when gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are present in the atmosphere. These oxides react in the rain water to produce stronger acids and can lower the pH to 4.5 or even 3.0. Sulfur dioxide, SO2, comes from volcanic eruptions or from fossil fuels, can become sulfuric acid within rainwater, which can cause solution weathering to the rocks on which it falls.

One of the most well-known solution weathering processes is carbonation, the process in which atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to solution weathering. Carbonation occurs on rocks which contain calcium carbonate, such as limestone and chalk. This takes place when rain combines with carbon dioxide or an organic acid to form a weak carbonic acid which reacts with calcium carbonate (the limestone) and forms calcium bicarbonate. This process speeds up with a decrease in temperature, not because low temperatures generally drive reactions faster, but because colder water holds more dissolved carbon dioxide gas[Citation Needed.]. Carbonation is therefore is a large feature of glacial weathering.

The reactions as follows:

CO2 + H2O -> H2CO3
carbon dioxide + water -> carbonic acid
H2CO3 + CaCO3 -> Ca(HCO3)2
carbonic acid + calcium carbonate -> calcium bicarbonate

Carbonation on the surface of well-jointed limestone produces a dissected limestone pavement which is most effective along the joints, widening and deepening them.

Hydration

Mineral hydration is a form of chemical weathering that involves the rigid attachment of H+ and OH- ions to the atoms and molecules of a mineral.

When rock minerals take up water, the increased volume creates physical stresses within the rock. For example iron oxides are converted to iron hydroxides and the hydration of anhydrite forms gypsum.

A freshly broken rock shows differential chemical weathering (probably mostly oxidation) progressing inward. This piece of sandstone was found in glacial drift near Angelica, New York

Hydrolysis and Silicate Weathering

Hydrolysis is a chemical weathering process affecting silicate and carbonate minerals. In such reactions, pure water ionizes slightly and reacts with silicate minerals. An example reaction:

Mg2SiO4 + 4H+ + 4OH- ⇌ 2Mg2+ + 4OH- + H4SiO4
olivine (forsterite) + four ionized water molecules ⇌ ions in solution + silicic acid in solution

This reaction results in complete dissolution of the original mineral, assuming enough water is available to drive the reaction. However, the above reaction is to a degree deceptive because pure water rarely acts as a H+ donor. Carbon dioxide, though, dissolves readily in water forming a weak acid and H+ donor.

Mg2SiO4 + 4CO2 + 4H2O ⇌ 2Mg2+ + 4HCO3- + H4SiO4
olivine (forsterite) + carbon dioxide + water ⇌ Magnesium and bicarbonate ions in solution + silicic acid in solution

This hydrolysis reaction is much more common. Carbonic acid is consumed by silicate weathering, resulting in more alkaline solutions because of the bicarbonate. This is an important reaction in controlling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and can affect climate.

Aluminosilicates when subjected to the hydrolysis reaction produce a secondary mineral rather than simply releasing cations.

2KAlSi3O8 + 2H2CO3 + 9H2O ⇌ Al2Si2O5(OH)4 + 4H4SiO4 + 2K+ + 2HCO3-
Orthoclase (aluminosilicate feldspar) + carbonic acid + water ⇌ Kaolinite (a clay mineral) + silicic acid in solution + potassium and bicarbonate ions in solution

Oxidation

Within the weathering environment chemical oxidation of a variety of metals occurs. The most commonly observed is the oxidation of Fe2+ (iron) and combination with oxygen and water to form Fe3+ hydroxides and oxides such as goethite, limonite, and hematite. This gives the affected rocks a reddish-brown coloration on the surface which crumbles easily and weakens the rock. This process is better known as 'rusting'. Many other metallic ores and minerals oxidize and hydrate to produce colored deposits, such as chalcopyrites or CuFeS2 oxidizing to copper hydroxide and iron oxides.

Biological

A number of plants and animals may create chemical weathering through release of acidic compounds, i.e. moss on roofs is classed as weathering.

Biological weathering of lava by lichen, La Palma.

The most common form of biological weathering is the release of chelating compounds, i.e. acids, by plants so as to break down aluminium and iron containing compounds in the soils beneath them. Decaying remains of dead plants in soil may form organic acids which, when dissolved in water, cause chemical weathering.[citation needed] Extreme release of chelating compounds can easily affect surrounding rocks and soils, and may lead to podsolisation of soils.

Building weathering

Buildings made of any stone, brick or concrete are susceptible to the same weathering agents as any exposed rock surface. Also statues, monuments and ornamental stonework can be badly damaged by natural weathering processes. This is accelerated in areas severely affected by acid rain.

Examples

A rock formation in the Altiplano, Bolivia, sculpted by wind erosion

Spectacular examples of weathering include such features as natural arches and blowholes.

See also

External links

References

  1. ^ http://facstaff.gpc.edu/~pgore/geology/geo101/weather.htm
  2. ^ Goudie, A.S.; Viles H. (2008). "5: Weathering Processses and Forms". in Burt T.P., Chorley R.J., Brunsden D., Cox N.J. & Goudie A.S.. Quaternary and Recent Processes and Forms. Landforms or the Development of Gemorphology. 4. Geological Society. pp. 129–164. ISBN 1862392498, 9781862392496. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=wg0Rl7dY5ZYC&pg=PA137&dq=frost-shattering&ei=IMwWS5q7CaWGzASK34j7Dw#v=onepage&q=frost-shattering&f=false. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 

Simple English

File:Rocks ArchesNP Moab UT
Erosion features in Navajo Sandstone near Moab, Utah. Erosion by water and wind.

[[File:|thumb|200px|A rock in Abisko, Sweden fractured along existing joints possibly by frost weathering or thermal stress]] [[File:|thumb|200px|Geological exfoliation of granite dome rock in the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas.]]

File:Toklat River - East Fork
Toklat River, Denali National Park, Alaska. This river, like other braided streams, rapidly changes the positions of its channels through processes of erosion, sediment transport, and deposition.

Weathering is the decomposition of rocks, soils and their minerals through direct contact with the Earth's atmosphere.

Weathering is the first of two processes which break down the surface of the land. The second is erosion, where broken material is moved downhill towards (usually) the sea.

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Context

Dynamic movement is always taking place on Earth. One type of change raises the land surface upwards to form (at the highest) huge mountain ranges. This orogeny is formed as a result of plate tectonics, such as the collision of continental plates.

At the same time, all land surfaces are being ground down gradually all the time. Material from the land ends up in the seas or lakes, and forms the sediment which finally ends up as sedimentary rock. Rocks and minerals break up under the influence of water, ice, wind and gravity, and other causes.

The two main types of weathering are mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical weathering

Mechanical or physical weathering means the breakdown of rocks and soils through direct contact with atmospheric conditions such as heat, water, ice and pressure.

Wind

Wind processes are called 'aeolian'. Wind erodes the Earth's surface by removing loose, fine-grained particles, called 'deflation'.

Wind carrying sand wears grinds down surfaces with its windbourne particles.

Regions which have intense and sustained erosion are called deflation zones. Most aeolian deflation zones are composed of desert pavement, a sheet-like surface of rock fragments that remains after wind and water have removed the fine particles. Almost half of Earth's desert surfaces are stony deflation zones. The rock mantle in desert pavements protects the underlying material from deflation.

Rain

Rain is another force that works slowly. The force of raindrops on some rocks make them wear down. Rain also can make a chemical change in some rocks. The water mixes with the minerals in the rock to break it down.

Temperature

File:Weathering freeze thaw action
Freeze-thaw weathering of a rock in southern Iceland

Changing temperature can make a rock crack. Every day when the sun shines on the rock, its surface is heated. Heat causes the surface to expand (get bigger) a little. The inside of the rock, though, does not heat up as fast as the outside of the rock. The inside of the rock stays cooler. At night, the surface cools down and contracts. The expanding and contracting makes some places on the surface weak, and a crack is made.

Also, if water gets into a crack in a rock and the temperature goes below the freezing point, the water will freeze and expand. After some time, the rock may be weak enough to break into pieces.

Ice

Ice, which can be miles thick, grinds the surface of the rock below it. The particles are carried with the ice, and if a glacier ends up in the sea, so does all the material carried with it.

Chemical weathering

Chemical weathering is the direct effect of atmospheric or biological chemicals in the breakdown of rocks, soils and minerals.

Carbon dioxide cycle

The carbon dioxide cycle is most important for weathering. CO2 is put into the atmosphere mostly by volcanoes, and it is taken out of the atmosophere by photosynthesis, and by one other process.

While it is in the air, CO2 can dissove in water droplets to form dilute carbonic acid.

"Weathering is a large consumer of the atmospheric carbon dioxide essential for dissolving rocks".[1]

In fact, since volcanoes have not been very active in the Cainozoic, the supply of CO2 has been run down somewhat. It is thought this may have led to the Pleistocene ice ages.[1]

When rain hits rock it does so with mechanical energy and dilute acid. The acid dissolves many types of minerals and rocks though, of course, very slowly. When a mineral like feldspar is dissolved, it lets sodium ions into the sea; chlorine ions come from other minerals. The sea tastes salty because of the elements which have been dissolved out of rocks.[2]

Other pages

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Van Andel T.H. 1994. New views on an old planet:a history of global change. Cambridge University Press. p233
  2. Drury S. 1999. Stepping stones: the making of our home world. Oxford University Press. p57

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