Plate tectonics (Part 3): The rock cycle

Helen Gould (UK) What is the rock cycle? Usually, the first thing that budding geologists learn about rocks is that there are three kinds: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. These three major kinds are divided up into many different types of rock. For example, marble, slate and metaquartzite are all metamorphic rocks; basalt, granite, obsidian and andesite are all igneous rocks; and limestone, sandstone, clay and siltstone are all sedimentary rocks. What is a rock made of? Rocks are made of minerals. Therefore, particular combinations of minerals help us to identify rocks. Minerals are chemical compounds, consisting of chemical elements, which in turn are made of atomic particles. Who first thought of the rock cycle? James Hutton was the first geologist to propose a cycle of rock creation and change. In 1785, he gave a talk to the Scottish Geological Society in Edinburgh. In it, he suggested that rocks undergo processes that change them from one type of rock into another. He later developed the idea in his book, ‘Theory of the Earth with Proof and Illustrations’. He thought there was a relationship between the three basic rock types: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. We now know this is correct. Fig. 1. Agglomerate, Fig. 2. Andesite. However, it was not until this idea was set in a plate tectonics context that it really made sense to geologists. At about the same time, another Scotsman, James Hall, invented experimental geology. He demonstrated the crystallisation of basalt under slow-cooling conditions, and produced marble by … Read More

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