What is Weathering, Types of Weathering

What is Weathering

Weathering is the process of breaking down rocks, minerals, and other materials at or near the Earth's surface. It is caused by a variety of physical, chemical, and biological agents, and it plays an important role in shaping the landscape and creating soil. It is the initial step in the cycle of erosion, leading to the formation of sediments and eventually, the creation of new rocks.

Factors that Affect Weathering

The rate of weathering is influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • Climate: Weathering is generally more rapid in warm, humid climates than in cold, dry climates.
  • Rock type: Some rocks are more resistant to weathering than others. For example, granite is more resistant to weathering than limestone.
  • Surface area: Rocks with a large surface area are more susceptible to weathering than rocks with a small surface area.
  • Time: Weathering is a slow process, but it can have a significant impact on the landscape over time.

Tafoni weathering
Tafoni and pebbles at Pebble Beach, San Mateo County, California.
Photo: Dawn Endico

Weathering Types

There are three main types of weathering: physical, chemical, and biological.

Physical Weathering

Physical weathering is the process of breaking down rocks and minerals into smaller pieces without changing their chemical composition. This can be caused by a number of factors, including:

Weathering of volcanic rock
Physical Weathering of volcanic rock

 Physical Weathering Examples

Thermal expansion and contraction: When rocks are heated up, they expand. When they cool down, they contract. This expansion and contraction can create cracks in the rock that allow water and other agents to enter and further break down the rock. Repeated cycles of heating and cooling can cause rocks to crack and break apart.

Frost wedging: When water seeps into cracks in rocks and freezes, it expands. This expansion can put a lot of pressure on the rock, causing it to crack further.

Abrasion: Wind and water can carry particles that act as sandpaper, wearing down rock surfaces over time. This process is particularly evident in deserts and along coastlines.

Pressure Release: When overlying rock layers are eroded, the underlying rocks experience a release of pressure, causing them to expand and potentially crack or flake.

Salt Crystallization: In coastal areas, salt from seawater evaporates and leaves behind crystals in rock pores. These crystals grow and exert pressure, causing the rock to break down.

Chemical Weathering

Chemical weathering involves the alteration of the chemical composition of rocks and minerals. It occurs when rocks and minerals interact with substances in the environment, such as water, acids, and oxygen. These reactions convert some of the original primary minerals in the rock to secondary minerals, remove other substances as solutes, and leave the most stable minerals as a chemically unchanged resistate.

Honeycomb weathering
Honeycomb weathering at Altdahn Castle in the Palatinate Forest, Germany

Chemical Weathering Examples

Dissolution: Water and acids can dissolve certain minerals in rocks, leading to their breakdown. For example, acidic rainwater can dissolve limestone, forming caves and sinkholes.

Oxidation: Oxidation occurs when minerals react with oxygen in the atmosphere, forming oxides. When minerals containing iron are exposed to air and water, they can rust, forming new compounds that are weaker and more susceptible to further weathering. This process is common in iron-rich minerals, causing them to rust and turn red or brown.

Hydrolysis: Hydrolysis occurs when water molecules react with the mineral's chemical structure, breaking down their chemical bonds and forming new compounds. This process is particularly effective on minerals containing silicon, such as feldspars.

Biological Weathering

Biological weathering involves the breakdown of rocks and minerals by living organisms. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including plants, animals, and microorganisms. 

Biological weathering of basalt
Biological weathering of basalt by lichen, La Palma

Biological Weathering Examples

Root Penetration: Plant roots can exert pressure on rocks as they grow, gradually breaking them apart. Additionally, the release of organic acids from plant roots can contribute to chemical weathering.

Burrowing Animals: Burrowing animals, such as earthworms and moles, can dislodge rock fragments and mix them with soil, contributing to the breakdown of rocks.

Microorganisms: Microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, can secrete acids that dissolve minerals, contributing to chemical weathering. They can also break down organic matter, producing humic acids that further enhance chemical weathering.

Landforms Created by Weathering

Weathering can create a variety of landforms, including:

Inselbergs: These are isolated hills or mountains that are found in plain areas and deserts. They are the result of weathering and erosion, and they are often made of hard, resistant rocks that are more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rocks.

Mushroom rocks: These are tall, isolated hills whose shape resembles a mushroom. They are the result of weathering and erosion, and they are often made of soft, easily weathered rocks that are more susceptible to weathering than the surrounding rocks. 

Pinnacles: Pinnacles are tall, pointed rocks that are formed when the surrounding rocks are eroded away. Weathering can help to isolate pinnacles by breaking down the rocks around them.

Hoodoos: Hoodoos are a type of weathering landform that is formed by the erosion of soft rock formations, such as sandstone. They are often found in areas where there is a lot of wind, such as the deserts of the southwestern United States.

Spheroids: These are round, egg-shaped rocks that are found in deserts. They are the result of physical weathering, and they are often caused by the exfoliation of rocks due to changes in temperature. 

Karst topography: Karst topography is a type of topography that is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and other landforms that have been created by the dissolution of limestone. Karst topography is often found in tropical and subtropical regions. Limestone is a rock that is composed primarily of calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is soluble in water, so when limestone is exposed to water, it dissolves. This process creates sinkholes, caves, and other karst landforms.

Tafoni: Tafoni are large, cavernous holes in rocks that are caused by a combination of chemical and mechanical weathering. They are typically found in arid or semi-arid climates, where there is little rainfall to wash away weathered material.

Honeycombs: These are hexagonal-shaped weathering patterns that are found on rocks. Honeycombs is formed by the dissolution of limestone by acidic rainwater.

Mushroom Rock formation (Saudi Arabia)
Mushroom Rock formation (Saudi Arabia)

Weathering Effects and Importance

Weathering has a number of important effects, including:

  • Soil formation: Weathered rock fragments and mineral particles form the basis of soil, providing the essential ingredients for plant growth and agricultural activities.
  • Landform development: Weathering can create unique landforms, such as caves, arches, mountains, valleys, and canyons. by selectively eroding different rock types and structures.
  • Mineral resource formation: Weathering can concentrate minerals, making them more accessible for mining.
  • Archaeological preservation: Weathered artifacts can provide valuable clues about the past.
Mushroom Rocks State Park, Dakota Sandstone Formations, Kansas
Mushroom Rocks State Park, Dakota Sandstone Formations, Kansas
(Credit: John Coletti)

Weathering is a continuous process that is constantly shaping the Earth's surface. It is a complex process that involves a variety of factors, including physical, chemical, and biological processes. Weathering is an essential part of the Earth's systems and plays an important role in soil formation, nutrient cycling, and landscape formation. 

Hoodoos, Utah
Bryce Canyon Hoodoos, Utah
Photo: Bryan Pocius
 See also:
Carpet Rock - Types, and How Did Carpet Rock Form
Grain Size - What is Grain Size and How is It Measured?
Identifying Transgression and Regression in Sedimentary Outcrops

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