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Rock cycle

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Title: Rock cycle  
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Subject: Peer review/Rock cycle/archive1, Neptunism, Rock (geology), Shale, Geological processes
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Rock cycle

A diagram of the rock cycle. Legend: 1 = magma; 2 = crystallization (freezing of rock); 3 = igneous rocks; 4 = erosion; 5 = sedimentation; 6 = sediments & sedimentary rocks; 7 = tectonic burial and metamorphism; 8 = metamorphic rocks; 9 = melting.

The rock cycle is a basic concept in geology that describes the dynamic transitions through geologic time among the three main rock types: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. As the diagram to the right illustrates, each of the types of rocks is altered or destroyed when it is forced out of its equilibrium conditions. An igneous rock such as basalt may break down and dissolve when exposed to the atmosphere, or melt as it is subducted under a continent. Due to the driving forces of the rock cycle, plate tectonics and the water cycle, rocks do not remain in equilibrium and are forced to change as they encounter new environments. The rock cycle is an illustration that explains how the three rock types are related to each other, and how processes change from one type to another over time.


  • Historical development 1
  • The Rock cycle 2
    • Transition to igneous 2.1
      • Secondary changes 2.1.1
    • Transition to metamorphic 2.2
    • Transition to sedimentary 2.3
  • Forces that drive the rock cycle 3
    • Plate tectonics 3.1
      • Spreading ridges 3.1.1
      • Subduction zones 3.1.2
      • Continental collision 3.1.3
      • Accelerated erosion 3.1.4
      • An evolving process 3.1.5

Historical development

The original concept of the rock cycle is usually attributed to James Hutton, from the eighteenth century Father of Geology. The rock cycle was a part of Hutton's uniformitarianism and his famous quote: no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end, applied in particular to the rock cycle and the envisioned cyclical nature of geologic processes. This concept of a repetitive non-evolutionary rock cycle remained dominant until the plate tectonics revolution of the 1960s. With the developing understanding of the driving engine of plate tectonics, the rock cycle changed from endlessly repetitive to a gradually evolving process. The Wilson cycle (a plate tectonics based rock cycle) was developed by J. Tuzo Wilson during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Rock cycle

Structures of Igneous Rock. Legend: A = magma chamber (batholith); B = dyke/dike; C = laccolith; D = pegmatite; E = sill; F = stratovolcano; processes: 1 = newer intrusion cutting through older one; 2 = xenolith or roof pendant; 3 = contact metamorphism; 4 = uplift due to laccolith emplacement.

Transition to igneous

When rocks are pushed deep under the Earth's surface, they may melt into magma. If the conditions no longer exist for the magma to stay in its liquid state, it will cool and solidify into an igneous rock. A rock that cools within the Earth is called intrusive or plutonic and will cool very slowly, producing a coarse-grained texture. As a result of volcanic activity, magma (which is called lava when it reaches Earth's surface) may cool very rapidly while being on the Earth's surface exposed to the atmosphere and are called extrusive or volcanic rocks. These rocks are fine-grained and sometimes cool so rapidly that no crystals can form and result in a natural glass, such as obsidian. Any of the three main types of rocks (igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks) can melt into magma and cool into igneous rocks.

Secondary changes

Epigenetic change (secondary processes) may be arranged under a number of headings, each of which is typical of a group of rocks or rock-forming minerals, though usually more than one of these alterations will be found in progress in the same rock. Silicification, the replacement of the minerals by crystalline or crypto-crystalline silica, is most common in felsic rocks, such as rhyolite, but is also found in serpentine, etc. Kaolinization is the decomposition of the feldspars, which are the most common minerals in igneous rocks, into kaolin (along with quartz and other clay minerals); it is best shown by granites and syenites. Serpentinization is the alteration of olivine to serpentine (with magnetite); it is typical of peridotites, but occurs in most of the mafic rocks. In uralitization, secondary hornblende replaces augite; chloritization is the alteration of augite (biotite or hornblende) to chlorite, and is seen in many diabases, diorites and greenstones. Epidotization occurs also in rocks of this group, and consists in the development of epidote from biotite, hornblende, augite or plagioclase feldspar.

Transition to metamorphic

This diamond is a mineral from within an igneous or metamorphic rock that formed at high temperature and pressure.

Rocks exposed to high temperatures and pressures can be changed physically or chemically to form a different rock, called metamorphic. Regional metamorphism refers to the effects on large masses of rocks over a wide area, typically associated with mountain building events within orogenic belts. These rocks commonly exhibit distinct bands of differing mineralogy and colors, called foliation. Another main type of metamorphism is caused when a body of rock comes into contact with an igneous intrusion that heats up this surrounding country rock. This contact metamorphism results in a rock that is altered and re-crystallized by the extreme heat of the magma and/or by the addition of fluids from the magma that add chemicals to the surrounding rock (metasomatism). Any pre-existing type of rock can be modified by the processes of metamorphism.

Transition to sedimentary

Rocks exposed to the minerals from chemicals dissolved from all other rock types.

Forces that drive the rock cycle

Plate tectonics

In 1967, J. Tuzo Wilson published an article in Nature describing the repeated opening and closing of ocean basins, in particular focusing on the current Atlantic Ocean area. This concept, a part of the plate tectonics revolution, became known as the Wilson cycle. The Wilson cycle has had profound effects on the modern interpretation of the rock cycle as plate tectonics became recognized as the driving force for the rock cycle.

Spreading ridges

At the mid-ocean divergent boundaries new magma is produced by mantle upwelling and a shallow melting zone. This juvenile basaltic magma is an early phase of the igneous portion of the cycle. As the tectonic plates on either side of the ridge move apart the new rock is carried away from the ridge, the interaction of heated circulating seawater through fractures starts the retrograde metamorphism of the new rock.

Subduction zones

The Juan de Fuca plate sinks below the North America plate at the Cascadia subduction zone.

The new basaltic oceanic crust eventually meets a subduction zone as it moves away from the spreading ridge. As this crust is pulled back into the mantle, the increasing pressure and temperature conditions cause a restructuring of the mineralogy of the rock, this metamorphism alters the rock to form eclogite. As the slab of basaltic crust and some included sediments are dragged deeper, water and other more volatile materials are driven off and rise into the overlying wedge of rock above the subduction zone which is at a lower pressure. The lower pressure, high temperature, and now volatile rich material in this wedge melts and the resulting buoyant magma rises through the overlying rock to produce island arc or continental margin volcanism. This volcanism includes more silicic lavas the further from the edge of the island arc or continental margin, indicating a deeper source and a more differentiated magma.

At times some of the metamorphosed downgoing slab may be thrust up or obducted onto the continental margin. These blocks of mantle peridotite and the metamorphic eclogites are exposed as ophiolite complexes.

The newly erupted volcanic material is subject to rapid erosion depending on the climate conditions. These sediments accumulate within the basins on either side of an island arc. As the sediments become more deeply buried lithification begins and sedimentary rock results.

Continental collision

On the closing phase of the classic Wilson cycle, two continental or smaller terranes meet at a convergent zone. As the two masses of continental crust meet, neither can be subducted as they are both low density silicic rock. As the two masses meet, tremendous compressional forces distort and modify the rocks involved. The result is regional metamorphism within the interior of the ensuing orogeny or mountain building event. As the two masses are compressed, folded and faulted into a mountain range by the continental collision the whole suite of pre-existing igneous, volcanic, sedimentary and earlier metamorphic rock units are subjected to this new metamorphic event.

Accelerated erosion

The high mountain ranges produced by continental collisions are immediately subjected to the forces of erosion. Erosion wears down the mountains and massive piles of sediment are developed in adjacent ocean margins, shallow seas, and as continental deposits. As these sediment piles are buried deeper they become lithified into sedimentary rock. The metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary rocks of the mountains become the new piles of sediments in the adjoining basins and eventually become sedimentary rock.

An evolving process

The plate tectonics rock cycle is an evolutionary process. Magma generation, both in the spreading ridge environment and within the wedge above a subduction zone, favors the eruption of the more silicic and

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