is the decomposition of earth rocks
and their minerals
through direct contact with the planet's atmosphere
. Weathering occurs in situ
, or "with no movement", and thus should not to be confused with erosion
, which involves the movement and disintegration of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, wind, and gravity.
Two important classifications of weathering processes exist. 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.
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, eolian or alluvial sediments) often makes more fertile soil.
Physical (mechanical) weathering
Mechanical weathering is the cause of the disintegration of rocks. The primary process in mechanical 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 mechanical weathering will increase the surface area exposed to chemical action. Furthermore, the chemical action at minerals in cracks can aid the disintegration process.
Thermal expansion, also known as onion-skin weathering, 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.
This process can also be called frost shattering. This type of weathering is common in mountain areas where the temperature is around freezing point. Frost induced weathering, although often attributed to the expansion of freezing water captured in cracks, is generally independent of the water-to-ice expansion. It has long been known that 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. They grow larger as they attract liquid water from the surrounding pores. The ice crystal growth weakens the rocks which, in time, break up. The phenomenon is caused by the almost unique property of water
in having its greatest density at 4 C, so ice
is of greater volume than water at the same temperature. When water freezes, then it expands and puts its surroundings under intense stress.
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. This is because the volume of water expands by 9% when it freezes.
When the ice thaws, water can flow further into the rock. When the temperature drops below freezing point and the water freezes again, the ice enlarges the joints further.
Repeated freeze-thaw action weakens 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.
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.
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)
Salt crystallization or 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.
Living organisms may contribute to mechanical weathering (as well as chemical weathering, see 'biological' weathering below). Lichens
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 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. This type of weathering happens over a period of time. Chemical weathering may alter a rocks chemical make up by changing the minerals in the rock or it adds some new minerals.
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.
, 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 and 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.
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.
is a chemical weathering process affecting Silicate 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
Within the weathering environment chemical oxidation
of a variety of metals occurs. The most commonly observed is the oxidation of Fe2+
) and combination with oxygen
and water to form Fe3+
hydroxides and oxides such as goethite
, 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
oxidizing to copper hydroxide
and iron oxides
A number of plants and animals may create chemical weathering through release of acidic compounds, i.e moss on roofs is classed as weathering.
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. Extreme release of chelating compounds can easily affect surrounding rocks and soils, and may lead to podsolisation of soils.
Carbon dioxide is added to rock minerals in the form of carbonic acid, which has derived its CO2
content from the atmosphere and vegetation. Carbonic acid is much more effective than pure water in attacking feldspar and other minerals. Silica and potassium-sodium carbonates are thus dissolved.
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.