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Metamorphism and Metamorphic Rock
In any introductory textbook on physical geology, the reader will find the discussion on metamorphic rocks located after the chapters on igneous and sedimentary rocks, and for very good reason. Metamorphic rocks form by the physical and sometimes chemical alteration of a pre-existing rock, whether it is igneous or sedimentary. In some cases, even metamorphic rocks can be altered into a completely different metamorphic rock. With igneous rocks forming from the melt produced by any rock type and a sedimentary rock forming from the weathered product of any rock type, the alteration of any rock to produce a metamorphic one completes the components of what is known as the rock cycle.
Basically, the rocks we encounter today that we classify as either igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary, could have belonged to a different rock classification in the past, because rocks are recycled throughout geologic time. This cycle is driven by the motion of the tectonic plates. It is easy to see that increasing the temperature of a rock can produce magma, and that rocks on the surface of the Earth can break up into sediment that can ultimately lithify into a sedimentary rock. But how can we alter a solid rock into a new rock, without melting it or making it become sediment?
All rocks are formed at certain temperatures and pressures either on Earth’s surface or, more commonly, beneath the surface. These rocks are the most stable at the conditions under which they form. Therefore, changing the temperature and/or pressure conditions may lead to a different rock, one that changed in order to be stable under new external conditions. This new rock that forms in response to changes in its physical and chemical environment is called a metamorphic rock; the word metamorphism means to change form, and for rocks this means a recrystallization of minerals (crystals) under subsolidus (temperatures too low for melt production) conditions. A metamorphic change can also occur if the rock’s composition is altered by hot, chemically reactive fluids, causing a change in the mineral content of the rock. To distinguish between the pre-existing rock and the new metamorphic one, the term protolith, or parent rock, is used to describe the pre-existing rock. Therefore, all metamorphic rocks have at least one protolith that has altered during metamorphism. In this module you will learn that all metamorphic rocks are identified by the mineral content and texture of the rock; for metamorphic rocks, texture refers to the orientation of the minerals in the rock. In addition, crystal size also conveys important information regarding the temperature conditions during metamorphism.
To summarize, metamorphism is the process by which a pre-existing rock (the protolith) is altered by a change in temperature, pressure, or by contact with chemically reactive fluids, or by any combination of these three parameters. The alteration process is a recrystallization event, where the initial rock’s minerals (crystals) have changed size, shape, and/or composition in response to these new external conditions. The end result is a new (metamorphic) rock that has an altered appearance, sometimes strikingly different from what it used to look like before metamorphism occurred. The metamorphic rock you end up with is strongly dependent on what rock you started with before the metamorphic event. Of secondary importance is the agent of metamorphic change: was recrystallization a result of increased temperature, pressure, or both? Or were chemically reactive fluids involved?
One must also consider how high the temperatures and pressures were, because metamorphism can occur in a range of temperature and pressure conditions. However, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, metamorphism occurs under subsolidus conditions, meaning that elevated temperatures that promote the recrystallization of a rock are not high enough to cause melting.
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At the completion of this module you will be able to:
- Summarize the factors that influence the nature of metamorphic rocks and the mechanisms for the formation of foliation, if present.
- Classify metamorphic rocks on the basis of their texture and mineral content, and explain the origins of these differences.
- Describe the various settings in which metamorphic rocks are formed and explain the links between plate tectonics and metamorphism.
- Summarize the important processes of regional metamorphism, and explain how rocks that were metamorphosed at depths of 10 km or 20 km can now be found on Earth’s surface.
- Summarize the important processes of contact metamorphism and metasomatism, and explain the key role of hydrothermal fluids.
See the Schedule of Work for dates of availability and due dates.
Be sure to read through the directions for all of this module’s activities before getting started so that you can plan your time accordingly. You are expected to work on this course throughout the week.
Physical Geology by Steven Earle
- Chapter 7 (Metamorphism and Metamorphic Rock)
Module 8 Assignment: Metamorphic Rock Lab
After you complete the reading, you can start working on Module 8 Assignment – Metamorphic Rock Lab
Module 8 Quiz
Module 8 Quiz has 10 multiple-choice questions and is based on the content of the Module 8 readings and Assignment 8.
The quiz is worth a total of 10 points (1 points per question). You will have only 10 minutes to complete the quiz, and you may take this quiz only once. Note: that is not enough time to look up the answers!
Make sure that you fully understand all of the concepts presented and study for this quiz as though it were going to be proctored in a classroom, or you will likely find yourself running out of time.
Keep track of the time, and be sure to look over your full quiz results after you have submitted it for a grade.
Your Questions and Concerns…
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