Weathering of rocks is not something that most people hear about. Despite it’s lack of fame, it plays an important role in the shaping of landscapes, including the Rocky Mountains.
Contrary to what many people think and say, the breaking down of rock into smaller pieces is called weathering, not erosion. It is an important part of the rock cycle. Weathering of rocks can be done by different means – physical or chemical. Here is an explanation of what the different kinds are.
Physical changes break down large rocks into smaller ones but the rocks are made of the same stuff. Here are a couple of examples of different types of physical processes that can break down rocks.
It may be hard to believe, but water is responsible for breaking apart many rocks. This is due to the fact that when water freezes it expands by 9%.
Water can get into tiny cracks in rocks during the day. Then at nighttime that water freezes and expands, which makes bigger cracks in the rock. This continues until part of the rock breaks off.
Another unlikely powerful force that can break up rocks is plants. It is possible for plant roots to grow into small cracks in rocks in search of water and nutrients. Over time those roots grow larger and larger, widening the crack in the rock. Eventually, if the roots get large enough or the crack large enough the rock may break off or apart.
In contrast to physical processes, which break apart the rocks, chemical processes change the make-up of the rock itself. The chemical processes break down the bonds or glue that hold rocks together and cause them to fall apart.
These chemical processes may occur when rain or oxygen from the air chemically reacts with the minerals in the rock to change it. For example, acid in rainwater can create a cave in the rock. This is common in limestone.