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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary rocks are one of three main types of rocks, along with igneous and metamorphic. They are formed on or near the Earth’s surface from the compression of ocean sediments or other processes.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Earth Science, Geology

Image

Sedimentary Rock

An example of a sedimentary rock, which is, by definition, composed of many, smaller rocks.

Photo courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo

Sedimentary rocks are formed on or near the Earth’s surface, in contrast to metamorphic and igneous rocks, which are formed deep within the Earth. The most important geological processes that lead to the creation of sedimentary rocks are erosion, weathering, dissolution, precipitation, and lithification.

Erosion and weathering include the effects of wind and rain, which slowly break down large rocks into smaller ones. Erosion and weathering transform boulders and even mountains into sediments, such as sand or mud. Dissolution is a form of weathering—chemical weathering. With this process, water that is slightly acidic slowly wears away stone. These three processes create the raw materials for new, sedimentary rocks.

Precipitation and lithification are processes that build new rocks or minerals. Precipitation is the formation of rocks and minerals from chemicals that precipitate from water. For example, as a lake dries up over many thousands of years, it leaves behind mineral deposits; this is what happened in California’s Death Valley. Finally, lithification is the process by which clay, sand, and other sediments on the bottom of the ocean or other bodies of water are slowly compacted into rocks from the weight of overlying sediments.

Sedimentary rocks can be organized into two categories. The first is detrital rock, which comes from the erosion and accumulation of rock fragments, sediment, or other materials—categorized in total as detritus, or debris. The other is chemical rock, produced from the dissolution and precipitation of minerals.

Detritus can be either organic or inorganic. Organic detrital rocks form when parts of plants and animals decay in the ground, leaving behind biological material that is compressed and becomes rock. Coal is a sedimentary rock formed over millions of years from compressed plants. Inorganic detrital rocks, on the other hand, are formed from broken up pieces of other rocks, not from living things. These rocks are often called clastic sedimentary rocks. One of the best-known clastic sedimentary rocks is sandstone. Sandstone is formed from layers of sandy sediment that is compacted and lithified.

Chemical sedimentary rocks can be found in many places, from the ocean to deserts to caves. For instance, most limestone forms at the bottom of the ocean from the precipitation of calcium carbonate and the remains of marine animals with shells. If limestone is found on land, it can be assumed that the area used to be under water. Cave formations are also sedimentary rocks, but they are produced very differently. Stalagmites and stalactites form when water passes through bedrock and picks up calcium and carbonate ions. When the chemical-rich water makes its way into a cave, the water evaporates and leaves behind calcium carbonate on the ceiling, forming a stalactite, or on the floor of the cave, creating a stalagmite.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks
other
Last Updated

July 15, 2022

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