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Physical Geology: The Science of Earth (2nd Edition) by Charles Fletcher

Chapter 7 (Weathering)

Weathering - a series of physical, chemical, chemical processes that modify rocks,

minerals, and sediments in Earth's crust to produce sediment, new minerals, soil, and
dissolved ions and compounds.

Weathering (produces sediment) → Erosion (transports sediment)

Streams, rivers, waves, gravity, and wind are responsible for the erosion that carries
sediments to their ultimate resting places, known as environments of deposition.

Soil - unconsolidated mineral and organic material constituting the uppermost layer on
Earth's surface; it serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.

Weathering can be categorized as:

1. Physical weathering - occurs when rock is fragmented by physical that do not
change its chemical composition; it is the mechanical breakdown of minerals and
2. Biological weathering - occurs when rock integrates due to the chemical and/or
physical activity of a living organism. It ranges from bacteria to plants and
3. Chemical weathering - is the chemical decomposition of minerals in rock. It
results in the formation of:
a. new sedimentary minerals formed by weathering
b. compounds that are dissolved in water
c. gases that escape to the atmosphere, are dissolved in water, or are
trapped in cavities in soil and sedimentary deposits

Generalities about Weathering

 Physical and biological weathering cause rock to fragment into particles,
thereby increasing the surface area that is vulnerable to chemical weathering.
 The effectiveness of chemical weathering is greatly enhanced by mechanical
and biological processes.

Physical Weathering Processes

1. Pressure Release
 Rock is brittle and it breaks when overlying pressure is released by tectonic
forces or by erosion -- that leads to growth of fractures, known as joints.
 Joints - openings or "partings", in rock where the two sides of the break
are not offset or laterally displaced.
 Sheeted joints - develop when rock is slowly uplifted by tectonic forces or
by the removal of overlying layers by erosion. As the weight of overlying
rock is released, the crust expands and fractures into flat horizontal slabs.
 Exfoliation - occurs when these slabs shift and uncover the underlying
2. Abrasion - occurs when sedimentary particles collide, leading to mechanical
wearing or grinding on their surfaces.
 Blowing wind and running water are usually laden with suspended
particles that abrade any surface they encountered -- "sandblasting".
 Ventifacts - rocks with unusual shapes and "fluted" or flat faces may have
been abraded by wind-blown sediment.
3. Ice Wedging - occurs when water flows into a joint and freezes.
 Water increases in volume by 9% when it turns into ice, and the growth of
ice crystal forces the joint to split open.
 Ice wedging plays a major role in weathering the crust in temperate, arctic,
and alpine regions.
 It is most effective at -5°C. A combination of ice wedging and gravity leads
to the formation of talus*.
*slopes of fallen rock that collect at the base of cliffs and steep hillsides
4. Hydraulic Action
 Waves
 Floods

Chemical Weathering Processes

 Most chemical weathering is the result of water interacting with minerals in a
 Water can be a particularly effective agent of decomposition because of the
nature of the water molecules.
o Water is the universal solvent -- by bonding with, and removing cations
from, a solid mineral surface.
1. Hydrolysis
 Ions in a mineral react with hydrogen (H+) and hydroxyl (OH-) ions in
 The hydrogen ions replace some of the cations in the minerals; thereby
changing the mineral's composition.
 Acid rainwater - forms naturally when CO2 in the atmosphere or the
ground dissolves in water, to produce carbonic acid.
𝐶𝑂2 + 𝐻2 𝑂 → 𝐻2 𝐶𝑂3
2. Oxidation
 It involves the loss of an electron from cation in a crystal, and its use by
free oxygen in the environment.
 Example: Fe+2 or Fe+3 + O2 → Fe2O3
 Oxidation is accelerated by wet conditions and high temperatures.
 During oxidation process, the volume of the mineral structure may
increase, usually making the mineral softer and weaker, and rendering it
more vulnerable to other types of weathering.
3. Dissolution
 It is a chemical weathering reaction in which carbonic acid dissolves
calcite, usually found in limestone.
 Dissolution of limestone on a large scale can yield a unique kind of
landscape called karst topography.
 Karst is developed when crust composed of limestone bedrock
experiences widespread dissolution -- this occurs when carbonic acid in
groundwater, percolates along joints and bedding planes.
 Karstification - a process where large underground caverns are created as
the rock dissolves.
 Over time, caverns grow, coalesce, and undermine an area, until finally the
roof collapses, producing a depression called a sinkhole.

Biological Weathering Processes

1. Movement and mixing of materials
 Burrowing organisms cause soil particles to turn over, move to new
locations, and change depth.
2. Simple breaking of particles
 Root wedging - rocks can be fractured as a result of burrowing by
animals or pressure from growing roots.
3. Production of carbon dioxide (CO2) by animal respiration or organic decay
 Carbon dioxide (CO2) raises the acidity of water, which then attacks and
dissolves minerals and other compounds in rocks.
4. Changes in the moisture content of soils
 Shade from leaves and stems, the presence of root masses and high levels
of organic materials in soil all increase the amount of water in the soil.
 Higher moisture content enhances physical and chemical weathering

Products of Weathering
 New minerals that are in equilibrium surface conditions (low temperature, low
pressure) and therefore are more likely to resist weathering.
 Chemical weathering yields weathering products -- minerals that result from
crystallization, dissolved compounds and some gases.

Process Dissolved material Weathering product

Hydrolysis of quartz Silica (SiO2) Sedimentary quartz (chert)
Hydrolysis of orthoclase feldspar K , Silica (SiO2) Kaolinite (clay)
Oxidation of olivine 4H2CO3 Hematite
Travertine from CaCO3
Dissolution of calcite CaCO3

Rock and Mineral Stability

 Not all minerals decompose at the same rate.
 Climate and mineral chemistry are the primary factors that regulate the rate at
which various rocks and minerals are weathered.
 Climate governs weathering and soil formation:
o Directly through precipitation and temperature
o Indirectly through the kinds of plants, animals and bacteria that cause
biological weathering and influence the chemistry of groundwater
 Warm, wet climates promote rapid chemical weathering, whereas cool dry
climates promote physical weathering.
 A mineral's chemistry determines its vulnerability to specific weathering
processes and the degree to which a rock is out of equilibrium with the
conditions of the immediate environment.

Goldich Stability Series

 Named for geologist Samuel S. Goldich
 The order of silicate mineral stability in Earth's surface environments is the
reverse of that in Bowen's reaction series.
 The most stable silicates are the last to crystallize in a cooling magma chamber,
while those that are least stable silicates are the first to crystallize.

Mineral Stability Rock Stability

Igneous/ Metamorphic Sedimentary Igneous/Metamorphic Sedimentary
Olivine Halite least stable Basalt Rock salt
Pyroxene Calcite Granite Limestone
Ca-Plagioclase Hematite Marble Rock gypsum
Biotite Kaolinite Gneiss Siltstone
Orthoclase feldpar Bauxite Schist Shale
Quartz Chert most stable Quartzite Quartz sandstone
Clay Minerals
 Clays are phyllosilicates, meaning that their crystalline structure consists of
layers of silica tetrahedra organized in sheets.
 Water and other molecules trapped in the silicate structure cause clay to swell,
which has the effect of making it soft to the touch (e.g., talc in talcum powder).
 Most common clays are kaolinite, montmorillonite, and illite.

The Uplift Weathering Hypothesis

 Orogenesis, the building of mountain ranges by continental collision, exposes
large areas of fresh silicate rock to hydrolysis, leading to withdrawal of CO2
from the atmosphere.
 Starting about 55 million years ago (Paleogene Period), Earth's atmosphere
began a long but steady cooling that continues today.
 Accelerated weathering resulting from uplift of the Himalayan range and Tibetan
Plateau is causing a global decrease in atmospheric CO2, which is cooling the
atmosphere over millions of years.

Soil Formation is Controlled by Climate

 Hot, Arid Climates
o Arid environments, such as deserts, allow little growth of vegetation and
provide too little water to induce much chemical weathering.
o Salts (halite) accumulate at the surface, due to evaporation, and erosion,
frost, abrasion, and slaking break down the rocky surface into sand or
o Low moisture means that fine particles are easily blown away while large
particles remain behind to form a tightly packed layer known as desert
 Cold Climates
o Arctic and alpine environments can also be dry, because in these regions
water has turned to snow and ice and is unavailable for chemical
o Organic material decays very slowly, giving it time to accrue and develop
into wetlands known as bogs that contain thick accumulations of peat
called muskeg.
 Hot, Humid Climates
o In humid environments such as a tropical rain forest that receives
extensive rainfall, the groundwater reaches almost to the surface for most
of the year.
o Deep soils cannot develop, and most minerals and nutrients are stored in
the living vegetation of the forest and in a rich, deep layer of leaf litter on
the forest floor.
o Humid tropical climates lead to intense chemical weathering that produces
soils largely composed of insoluble residues, or mineral products of
 Laterite - iron oxide
 Bauxite - aluminum oxide; an important ore of aluminum

The Soil Profile

 Soil Profile - a series of soil layers that reflect chemical, biological, and physical
 The thickness of the soil profile depends on the climate and the nature of the
parent rock, as well as the length of time over which it has developed.
 O horizon (humus) - vegetation debris, leaf litter, and other organic matter
 A horizon (topsoil)
 E horizon (zone of eluviation)
 B horizon (subsoil)
 C horizon
 Unweathered parent rock