Metamorphism (World of Earth Science)
Metamorphism refers to the physical and chemical changes that rocks undergo when exposed to conditions of high temperature, high pressure, or some combination thereof. Rocks that have undergone metamorphism exhibit chemical and structural changes that result from the partial or complete recrystallization of minerals within them. These transformations occur while the rock is in the solid state, i.e., no melting occurs during metamorphism. The conditions of high temperature and pressure under which metamorphism occurs are typically the result of processes such as mountain building, plate convergence, volcanism, and sedimentation.
Any type of rock may be metamorphosed and several agents can be involved in altering a parent rock into its metamorphic product. The composition of the parent rock limits the mineral composition of the product, although subsurface gases and fluids may contribute new elements. Thermal energy at depth, either from the geothermal gradient or from plutonic activity, may provide the energy for recrystallization of the rock. As the temperature increases, volatile components such as water and carbon dioxide can be released causing chemical changes to the minerals within the parent rock. In addition, the temperature increase may cause the rock to behave plastically in response to stresses acting on it, frequently resulting in a contorted appearance. Pressure on the parent rock may be a result of the overlying rock, known as lithostatic or confining pressure, or may be due to forces acting in a particular direction due to tectonic activity, known as directed pressure. Pressures within the rock may cause the instability of certain minerals in favor of those that are more stable under the new conditions. The pressure may also be localized on irregularities on the boundaries of individual grains. Recrystallization of a rock undergoing directed pressure typically results in the development of a foliated rock fabric, in which the axes of the minerals are aligned with the differential pressures based on the stability of the crystal lattice to those pressures. The development of such crystals during metamorphism may be heavily influenced by amount of time that the rock is exposed to the conditions. The mobilization of ions that supports crystal growth within the rock can require extensive periods of time to produce larger mineral grains.
Metamorphism may occur in a number of forms, each having different results and areal extent. Contact metamorphism is the baking of country rock immediately adjacent to an intruded magma body. This type of metamorphism, also known as thermal metamorphism, is caused by the high temperatures associated with an igneous intrusion. The rock is altered only in a zone, called an aureole, which can range from a few centimeters to several hundred meters in width. These zones may occur very near the surface and pressure plays an insignificant role in the process. In the case of cataclastic or dynamic metamorphism, rocks in a localized zone undergo mechanical disruption without significant mineralogical change. This is a near-surface phenomenon that is often associated with faulting and occurs at low temperature. Regional metamorphism, as the name suggests, encompasses large areas and is associated with large mountain building and plutonic events. Relatively high temperature and intense, directed pressures are common in this process. The differential stress associated with regional, or dynamothermal, metamorphism frequently yields foliated rock.
See also Metamorphic rock; Shock metamorphism