Regional metamorphism is a type of metamorphism that occurs over a wide area, typically hundreds to thousands of square kilometers. It is caused by the combined effects of heat, pressure, and stress associated with large-scale tectonic processes, such as mountain building and continental collisions.
The force of the collision causes rocks to be folded, broken, and stacked on each other, so not only is there the squeezing force from the collision, but from the weight of stacked rocks. The deeper rocks are within the stack, the higher the pressures and temperatures, and the higher the grade of metamorphism that occurs.
During regional metamorphism, rocks are buried deep within the Earth's crust, where they are subjected to temperatures of hundreds of degrees Celsius and pressures that can reach several kilobars. These extreme conditions cause the rocks to recrystallize and form new minerals.
Rocks that form from regional metamorphism are likely to be foliated because of the strong directional pressure of converging plates.
Regional metamorphism occurs when rocks are buried deep in the crust. This is commonly associated with convergent plate boundaries and the formation of mountain ranges. Because burial to 10 km to 20 km is required, the areas affected tend to be large.
Most regional metamorphism takes place within continental crust. While rocks can be metamorphosed at depth in most areas, the potential for metamorphism is greatest in the roots of mountain ranges where there is a strong likelihood for burial of relatively young sedimentary rock to great depths.
An example would be the Himalayan Range. At this continent-continent convergent boundary, sedimentary rocks have been both thrust up to great heights (nearly 9,000 m above sea level) and also buried to great depths.
At an oceanic spreading ridge, recently formed oceanic crust of gabbro and basalt is slowly moving away from the plate boundary. Water within the crust is forced to rise in the area close to the source of volcanic heat, and this draws more water in from farther out, which eventually creates a convective system where cold seawater is drawn into the crust and then out again onto the sea floor near the ridge.
The passage of this water through the oceanic crust at 200° to 300°C promotes metamorphic reactions that change the original pyroxene in the rock to chlorite and serpentine. Because this metamorphism takes place at temperatures well below the temperature at which the rock originally formed (~1200°C), it is known as retrograde metamorphism.
The rock that forms in this way is known as greenstone if it isn’t foliated, or greenschist if it is. Chlorite and serpentine are both “hydrated minerals” meaning that they have water (as OH) in their chemical formulas. When metamorphosed ocean crust is later subducted, the chlorite and serpentine are converted into new non-hydrous minerals (e.g., garnet and pyroxene) and the water that is released migrates into the overlying mantle, where it contributes to flux melting.
At a subduction zone, oceanic crust is forced down into the hot mantle. But because the oceanic crust is now relatively cool, especially along its sea-floor upper surface, it does not heat up quickly, and the subducting rock remains several hundreds of degrees cooler than the surrounding mantle. A special type of metamorphism takes place under these very high-pressure but relatively low-temperature conditions, producing an amphibole mineral known as glaucophane, which is blue in colour, and is a major component of a rock known as blueschist.
If you’ve never seen or even heard of blueschist, it’s not surprising. What is surprising is that anyone has seen it! Most blueschist forms in subduction zones, continues to be subducted, turns into eclogite at about 35 km depth, and then eventually sinks deep into the mantle — never to be seen again.
Regional metamorphism also takes place within volcanic-arc mountain ranges, and because of the extra heat associated with the volcanism, the geothermal gradient is typically a little steeper in these settings (somewhere between 40° and 50°C/km). As a result higher grades of metamorphism can take place closer to surface than is the case in other areas.
Rather than focusing on metamorphic rock textures (slate, schist, gneiss, etc.), geologists tend to look at specific minerals within the rocks that are indicative of different grades of metamorphism.
Some common minerals in metamorphic rocks are shown in Figure, arranged in order of the temperature ranges within which they tend to be stable. The upper and lower limits of the ranges are intentionally vague because these limits depend on a number of different factors, such as the pressure, the amount of water present, and the overall composition of the rock.