Weathering describes the breaking down or dissolving of rocks and minerals on the surface of the Earth. Water, ice, acids, salts, plants, animals, and changes in temperature are all agents of weathering.
6 - 12+
Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography
Weathering describes the breaking down or dissolving of rocks and minerals on the surface of the Earth. Water, ice, acids, salts, plants, animals, and changes in temperature are all agents of weathering. Once a rock has been broken down, a process called erosion transports the bits of rock and mineral away. No rock on Earth is hard enough to resist the forces of weathering and erosion. Together, these processes carved landmarks such as the Grand Canyon, in the U.S. state of Arizona. This massive canyon is 446 kilometers (277 miles) long, as much as 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 1,600 meters (1 mile) deep. Weathering and erosion constantly change the rocky landscape of Earth. Weathering wears away exposed surfaces over time. The length of exposure often contributes to how vulnerable a rock is to weathering. Rocks, such as lavas, that are quickly buried beneath other rocks are less vulnerable to weathering and erosion than rocks that are exposed to agents such as wind and water. As it smoothes rough, sharp rock surfaces, weathering is often the first step in the production of soils. Tiny bits of weathered minerals mix with plants, animal remains, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms. A single type of weathered rock often produces infertile soil, while weathered materials from a collection of rocks is richer in mineral diversity and contributes to more fertile soil. Soils types associated with a mixture of weathered rock include glacial till, loess, and alluvial sediments. Weathering is often divided into the processes of mechanical weathering and chemical weathering. Biological weathering, in which living or once-living organisms contribute to weathering, can be a part of both processes. Mechanical Weathering Mechanical weathering, also called physical weathering and disaggregation, causes rocks to crumble. Water, in either liquid or solid form, is often a key agent of mechanical weathering. For instance, liquid water can seep into cracks and crevices in rock. If temperatures drop low enough, the water will freeze. When water freezes, it expands. The ice then works as a wedge. It slowly widens the cracks and splits the rock. When ice melts, liquid water performs the act of erosion by carrying away the tiny rock fragments lost in the split. This specific process (the freeze-thaw cycle) is called frost weathering or cryofracturing. Temperature changes can also contribute to mechanical weathering in a process called thermal stress. Changes in temperature cause rock to expand (with heat) and contract (with cold). As this happens over and over again, the structure of the rock weakens. Over time, it crumbles. Rocky desert landscapes are particularly vulnerable to thermal stress. The outer layer of desert rocks undergo repeated stress as the temperature changes from day to night. Eventually, outer layers flake off in thin sheets, a process called exfoliation. Exfoliation contributes to the formation of bornhardts, one of the most dramatic features in landscapes formed by weathering and erosion. Bornhardts are tall, domed, isolated rocks often found in tropical areas. Sugarloaf Mountain, an iconic landmark in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a bornhardt. Changes in pressure can also contribute to exfoliation due to weathering. In a process called unloading, overlying materials are removed. The underlying rocks, released from overlying pressure, can then expand. As the rock surface expands, it becomes vulnerable to fracturing in a process called sheeting. Another type of mechanical weathering occurs when clay or other materials near rock absorb water. Clay, more porous than rock, can swell with water, weathering the surrounding, harder rock. Salt also works to weather rock in a process called haloclasty. Saltwater sometimes gets into the cracks and pores of rock. If the saltwater evaporates, salt crystals are left behind. As the crystals grow, they put pressure on the rock, slowly breaking it apart. Honeycomb weathering is associated with haloclasty. As its name implies, honeycomb weathering describes rock formations with hundreds or even thousands of pits formed by the growth of salt crystals. Honeycomb weathering is common in coastal areas, where sea sprays constantly force rocks to interact with salts. Haloclasty is not limited to coastal landscapes. Salt upwelling, the geologic process in which underground salt domes expand, can contribute to weathering of the overlying rock. Structures in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, were made unstable and often collapsed due to salt upwelling from the ground below. Plants and animals can be agents of mechanical weathering. The seed of a tree may sprout in soil that has collected in a cracked rock. As the roots grow, they widen the cracks, eventually breaking the rock into pieces. Over time, trees can break apart even large rocks. Even small plants, such as mosses, can enlarge tiny cracks as they grow. Animals that tunnel underground, such as moles and prairie dogs, also work to break apart rock and soil. Other animals dig and trample rock aboveground, causing rock to slowly crumble. Chemical Weathering Chemical weathering changes the molecular structure of rocks and soil. For instance, carbon dioxide from the air or soil sometimes combines with water in a process called carbonation. This produces a weak acid, called carbonic acid, that can dissolve rock. Carbonic acid is especially effective at dissolving limestone. When carbonic acid seeps through limestone underground, it can open up huge cracks or hollow out vast networks of caves. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in the U.S. state of New Mexico, includes more than 119 limestone caves created by weathering and erosion. The largest is called the Big Room. With an area of about 33,210 square meters (357,469 square feet), the Big Room is the size of six football fields. Sometimes, chemical weathering dissolves large portions of limestone or other rock on the surface of the Earth to form a landscape called karst. In these areas, the surface rock is pockmarked with holes, sinkholes, and caves. One of the world’s most spectacular examples of karst is Shilin, or the Stone Forest, near Kunming, China. Hundreds of slender, sharp towers of weathered limestone rise from the landscape. Another type of chemical weathering works on rocks that contain iron. These rocks turn to rust in a process called oxidation. Rust is a compound created by the interaction of oxygen and iron in the presence of water. As rust expands, it weakens rock and helps break it apart. Hydration is a form of chemical weathering in which the chemical bonds of the mineral are changed as it interacts with water. One instance of hydration occurs as the mineral anhydrite reacts with groundwater. The water transforms anhydrite into gypsum, one of the most common minerals on Earth. Another familiar form of chemical weathering is hydrolysis. In the process of hydrolysis, a new solution (a mixture of two or more substances) is formed as chemicals in rock interact with water. In many rocks, for example, sodium minerals interact with water to form a saltwater solution. Hydration and hydrolysis contribute to flared slopes, another dramatic example of a landscape formed by weathering and erosion. Flared slopes are concave rock formations sometimes nicknamed “wave rocks.” Their c-shape is largely a result of subsurface weathering, in which hydration and hydrolysis wear away rocks beneath the landscape’s surface. Living or once-living organisms can also be agents of chemical weathering. The decaying remains of plants and some fungi form carbonic acid, which can weaken and dissolve rock. Some bacteria can weather rock in order to access nutrients such as magnesium or potassium. Clay minerals, including quartz, are among the most common byproducts of chemical weathering. Clays make up about 40% of the chemicals in all sedimentary rocks on Earth. Weathering and People Weathering is a natural process, but human activities can speed it up. For example, certain kinds of air pollution increase the rate of weathering. Burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum releases chemicals such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. When these chemicals combine with sunlight and moisture, they change into acids. They then fall back to Earth as acid rain. Acid rain rapidly weathers limestone, marble, and other kinds of stone. The effects of acid rain can often be seen on gravestones, making names and other inscriptions impossible to read. Acid rain has also damaged many historic buildings and monuments. For example, at 71 meters (233 feet) tall, the Leshan Giant Buddha at Mount Emei, China is the world’s largest statue of the Buddha. It was carved 1,300 years ago and sat unharmed for centuries. An innovative drainage system mitigates the natural process of erosion. But in recent years, acid rain has turned the statue’s nose black and made some of its hair crumble and fall.
Spheroidal WeatheringSpheroidal weathering is a form of chemical weathering that occurs when a rectangular block is weathered from three sides at the corners and from two sides along its edges. It is also called “onion skin” weathering.
The Appalachian Mountains in eastern North America once towered more than 9,000 meters (30,000 feet) high—taller than Mount Everest! Over millions of years, weathering and erosion have worn them down. Today, the highest Appalachian peak reaches just 2,037 meters (6,684 feet) high.
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July 1, 2022
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