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About Metamorphic Rocks

What Makes Them So Unique?

A gneiss boulder showing characteristic mineral banding. Grant Dixon / Lonely Planet Images
/ Getty Images

Metamorphic rocks are the third great class of rocks. They occur
when sedimentaryand igneous rocks become changed, or metamorphosed, by
conditions underground. The four main agents that metamorphose rocks are heat,
pressure, fluids and strain. These agents can act and interact in an almost infinite
variety of ways. As a result, most of the thousands of rare minerals known to science
occur in metamorphic rocks.

Metamorphism acts at two scales: regional and local. Regional scale metamorphism
generally occurs deep underground during orogenies, or mountain building episodes.
The resulting metamorphic rocks form the cores of large mountain chains like
the Appalachians. Local metamorphism happens at a much smaller level, usually from
nearby igneous intrusions. It is sometimes referred to as contact metamorphism -
more on that later.


The main thing about metamorphic rocks is that they are shaped by great heat and
pressure. The following traits are all related to that.
 Because their mineral grains grew together tightly during metamorphism,
they're generally strong rocks.
 They're made of different minerals than other kinds of rocks and have a wide
range of color and luster.
 They often show signs of stretching or squeezing, giving them a striped


Heat and pressure usually work together, because both increase as you go deeper in
the Earth.

At high temperatures and pressures, the minerals in most rocks break down and
change into a different set of minerals that are stable in the new conditions. The clay
minerals of sedimentary rocks are a good example. Clays are surface minerals, which
form as feldspar and mica break down in the conditions at the Earth's surface.

With heat and pressure they slowly return to mica and feldspar. Even with their new
mineral assemblages, metamorphic rocks may have the same overall chemistry as
before metamorphism.

Fluids are an important agent of metamorphism. Most rocks contain some water, but
sedimentary rocks hold the most. First, there is the water that was trapped in the
sediment as it became rock. Second, there the is water that is liberated by clay minerals
as they change back to feldspar and mica. This water can become so charged with
dissolved materials that the resulting fluid is, in essence, a liquid mineral. It may be
acidic or alkaline, full of silica (forming chalcedony) or full of sulfides or carbonates or
metal compounds, in endless varieties. Fluids tend to wander away from their
birthplaces, interacting with rocks elsewhere. That process, which changes a rock's
chemistry as well as its mineral assemblage, is called metasomatism.

Strain refers to any change in the shape of rocks due to the force of stress. Movement
on a fault zone is one example. In shallow rocks, shear forces simply grind and crush
the mineral grains (cataclasis) to yield cataclasite. Continued grinding yields the hard
and streaky rock mylonite.

Different degrees of metamorphism create distinctive sets of metamorphic minerals.

These are organized into metamorphic facies, a tool petrologists use to decipher the
history of metamorphism.


Under greater heat and pressure, as metamorphic minerals such as mica and feldspar
begin to form, strain orients them in layers. The presence of mineral layers,
called foliation, is an important feature for classifying metamorphic rocks. As strain
increases, the foliation becomes more intense, and the minerals may sort themselves
into thicker layers. The foliated rock types that form under these conditions are
called schist or gneiss, depending on their texture. Schist is finely foliated whereas
gneiss is organized in noticeable, wide bands of minerals.

Non-foliated rocks occur when heat is high, but pressure is low or equal on all sides.

This prevents dominant minerals from showing any visible alignment. The minerals
still recrystallize, however, increasing the overall strength and density of the rock.


The sedimentary rock shale metamorphoses first into slate, then into phyllite, then a
mica-rich schist. The mineral quartz does not change under high temperature and
pressure, although it becomes more strongly cemented. Thus, the sedimentary
rock sandstone turns to quartzite. Intermediate rocks that mix sand and clay —
mudstones — metamorphose into schists or gneisses. The sedimentary rock limestone
recrystallizes and becomes marble.

Igneous rocks give rise to a different set of minerals and metamorphic rock types;
these include serpentinite, blueschist, soapstone and other rarer species such
as eclogite.

Metamorphism can be so intense, with all four factors acting at their extreme range,
that the foliation can be warped and stirred like taffy; the result of this is migmatite.
With further metamorphism, rocks can begin to resemble plutonic granites. These
kinds of rocks give joy to experts because of what they say about deep-seated
conditions during things like plate collisions.


A type of metamorphism that is important in specific localities is contact

metamorphism. This most often occurs near igneous intrusions, where hot magma
forces itself into sedimentary strata. The rocks next to the invading magma are baked
into hornfels or its coarse-grained cousin granofels. Magma can rip chunks of country
rock off the channel wall and turn them into exotic minerals, too.

Surface lava flows and underground coal fires can also cause mild contact
metamorphism, similar to the degree that occurs when baking bricks.