Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “metamorphic rocks”

Rocks! –a brief illustrated primer

click on any image to see a larger version

Seems like most people I know like rocks. They bring home unusual rocks from vacations; they admire beautiful facing stones on buildings; they frequently ask “What is this rock”? Considering that the type of rock you’re looking at reflects the processes that caused it to form, some basic rock identification skills can go a long way to understanding our planet!


Rock (left, igneous-granite) and minerals (right, quartz and kyanite). Notice that the granite is made of a variety of minerals.

Of course there are thousands of different rock types —But! they ALL fit into one of three categories: igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. Here’s a brief, illustrated summary of each.

Igneous rocks are those that form by cooling and crystallization from a molten state. Consequently, they consist of crystals of various minerals that form an interlocking mosaic like the rock in the photo to the right. Igneous rocks are further classified as “intrusive” or “extrusive”, depending if they form beneath Earth’s surface (intrusive) or on Earth’s surface (extrusive). Extrusive rocks are more commonly called volcanic rocks. Generally speaking, intrusive rocks are coarsely crystalline whereas volcanic ones are finely crystalline. Check out this gallery of igneous rock photos.

Sedimentary rocks are made of particles (“sediment”) of pre-existing rock that are deposited as layers on Earth’s surface and then become cemented together. Individual layers of sedimentary rock are called “beds”. Bedding is best observed from a distance; most individual sedimentary rocks come from within a bed and so may appear homogeneous. Check out this gallery of sedimentary rock photos.

Metamorphic rocks are pre-existing rocks that change (“metamorphose”) because they are subject to high temperatures and/or pressures. This change involves the growth of new crystals in the rock. Because this growth typically occurs under conditions of high pressure as well as temperature, the new minerals tend to grow in a preferred orientation, leading to a fine-scale layering in the rock. This layering is called foliation. Unlike bedding in sedimentary rock, foliation tends to be irregular and marked by differently colored zones of different minerals. Check out this gallery of metamorphic rock photos.


Sedimentary (sandstone, L), Igneous (granite, Ctr), and Metamorphic (gneiss, R) specimens


simplified key to recognizing main rock types

Telling Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic rocks apart is usually pretty easy. First, decide if the rock consists of crystals or rounded grains. If it consists of crystals, then it is igneous or metamorphic; if it consists of grains, then it is sedimentary. If the crystals are arranged into layers or bands, the rock is metamorphic; if they are randomly arranged, then it is igneous. Igneous rocks with large crystals generally indicate slow cooling within the earth (intrusive). Conversely, igneous rocks with small crystals generally indicate rapid cooling on Earth’s surface (volcanic).

Igneous Rock –more details

Intrusive and volcanic rocks are further classified based on their chemistry and texture according to the chart below. This is one place where mineral identification becomes very important because minerals reflect the rock’s chemistry. Importantly, rocks with high silica content, such as rhyolite and granite, typically have fairly low iron contents, and so tend to have minerals that are light in color, such as K-feldspar, sodium-rich plagioclase, and quartz. Conversely, rocks with low silica content, such as basalt and gabbro, typically have high iron contents, and so have minerals that tend to be dark in color.

 Intro-1. Ig rx-CS4
Principal igneous rock types. Their classification depends on texture and composition. Fine-grained rocks are extrusive (upper row), whereas coarse-grained rocks are intrusive (lower row). Silica content then determines the specific rock name: gabbro and basalt <50-57%, SiO2; diorite and andesite, 57-67%; granite and rhyolite, 67+%.   Notice that rocks tend to be darker, denser, and more iron rich towards the lower silica end of the spectrum.

More on Volcanic Rock
Being igneous, volcanic rocks are made of crystals –but they’re so fine grained, you often can’t see that without a microscope. Thankfully, many volcanic rocks contain phenocrysts, larger crystals surrounded by the finer grained matrix. If you look closely at the photos of basalt and andesite above, you can see phenocrysts of plagioclase feldspar as the small white things.

Below are more photos, showing a more enlarged view of a rock with phenocrysts. Note how fine grained the surrounding matrix is –you can’t really see anything at all. If you look at the microscopic view though you can see that the whole rock is crystalline, even the super-fine matrix. The point here is that, unless the rock contains glass (see next section), the whole rock is crystalline!


Porphyritic volcanic rock in hand sample (left) and microscopically (right). Note how microscopic view

Volcanic: Glass
One of the more ubiquitous volcanic products, volcanic glass is just that –glass–so it lacks a crystal structure. Glass can form when the lava is so dry as to inhibit crystal growth, as in obsidian, or when lava cools so quickly as to prevent crystal growth, such as with volcanic ash and pumice.

The photos below show pumice, which is frothy volcanic glass. It gets that texture because it forms during violent eruptions –explosively expanding gases in the lava shatter the fast-cooling material so that the rock consists of air bubbles (called vesicles) separated by glassy sidewalls.


Pumice: frothy volcanic glass from instantaneous cooling. Left-hand image shows close-up view of glass threads. Paper clip for scale.

Volcanic: Pyroclastic Material and Rocks
Pyroclastic materials (also called “tephra”) form during explosive eruptions and so consist of rock fragments and glass ejected violently from the volcano. We classify it according to its size: large fragments are called blocks or bombs; small particles, between about 2mm – 64mm, are called “lapilli”; tiny particles, smaller than 2mm, are called “ash“.  Pumice is also pyroclastic, but it’s considered its own rock type –and it can be of any size. Pyroclastic falls can result from any explosive eruption in which pyroclastic materials fall out from the atmosphere; pyroclastic flows are those that flow out over the ground surface.


Most tuff contains fragments of pumice in a matrix of ash

Now the rocks. The most common pyroclastic rock is undoubtedly “tuff”, which is composed largely of ash and pumice fragments, erupted mostly during rhyolitic eruptions. Air fall tuff forms from ash that accumulates in layers as it settles from the atmosphere; Ash flow tuff forms from bodies of ash that flow rapidly along the ground, typically incinerating everything in their paths. Because the material flows, it typically does not form layers. Many ash flow tuffs are welded (called “welded tuff”) because of the high temperatures. These highly welded tuffs are sometimes called “ignimbrites”. To identify tuff, look for pieces of pumice floating around in the ashy matrix.

Below’s a view of the Bandelier Tuff in northern New Mexico. It’s a series of ash flow tuffs formed during huge eruptions 1.6 and 1.25 million years ago in the Jemez Mountains. These eruptions formed the Valles-Toledo Caldera (generally just called the “Valles Caldera”). You can get an idea as to the size of the eruptions based on the size of the flows: they’re thick!

Bandelier Tuff, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Cliffs of Bandelier Tuff, erupted from Valles Caldera, New Mexico.

New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone hosts the most frequent recent rhyolitic eruptions than anywhere else in the world, all active in the last 2 million years. The most recent big eruptions, 26,500 and 1800 years ago, were centered on Lake Taupo, near the middle of the North Island. Below is a map showing the distribution of airfall and ignimbrite (welded ash flow) deposits formed during the eruption at AD 186, just over 1800 years ago. The estimated volume of all eruptive products during this eruption exceeds 105 km3 (Wilson, and Walker, 1985). By comparison, the older “Oruanui” eruption, 26,500 years ago? It likely erupted more than 1000 km3! (Wilson, 2001).

Taupo deposits

Taupo vent (red triangle) and distribution of airfall and ashflow deposits from AD186 eruption.  Inset shows Taupo Volcanic Zone on New Zealand’s North Island. From Wilson and Walker, 1985.

references for Taupo eruptions:
Wilson, C.J.N., and Walker, G.P.L., 1985, The Taupo eruption, New Zealand i. General Aspects, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, v. 314, p. 199-228.

Wilson, C.J.N., 2001, The 26.5 Oruanui eruption, New Zealand: an introduction and overview, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 112, p. 133-174).

Sedimentary Rock –More details

Sedimentary rock may be clastic, biogenic, or chemical, depending on how the particles formed. Clastic sedimentary rocks contain actual pieces of the pre-existing rock that have been transported from the original source. During this transportation, the particle breaks into smaller grains and typically becomes rounded. Clastic sedimentary rocks are further classified according to grain size: shale contains clay-sized grains; siltstone contains silt-sized grains; sandstone contains sand-sized grains; conglomerate contains grains that are pebble to boulder-sized.


Clastic sedimentary rocks: shale (left), sandstone (center), and conglomerate (right).

Biogenic sedimentary rocks are those that form through biological activity. By far the most common example is limestone, which forms by the production of calcium carbonate by algae and invertebrate animals for shells.   Other examples include dolomite, which forms by the same process as limestone, and chert, which forms by the accumulation of silica-producing organisms on the sea floor.

Chemical sedimentary rocks form by non-biologically induced precipation of minerals. Examples include sinter and travertine, which consist of silica and calcium carbonate respectively, precipitated from hot water at thermal springs. Another important example is bedded salt, which forms today by evaporation in closed desert basins.


Tilted sedimentary rocks –started out horizontally.

You can’t see the bedding in the rock samples shown above, but if you were to stand back from an outcrop of sedimentary rocks, you probably could see the bedding. That’s because most individual samples don’t go across bedding but instead come from individual beds.



Metamorphic Rock –more details

Most metamorphic rocks are classified according to their grain size and the resulting nature of their foliation. Slates are the finest grained metamorphic rock, followed by phyllite, schist, and gneiss, being the coarsest grained. Gneiss is especially distinctive because most of its crystals are readily visible and its foliation is marked by bands of different minerals. In general, crystal size corresponds to the metamorphic grade, or intensity, with the most coarsely crystalline rocks being of the highest grades.


Metamorphic rocks. From left to right: slate, phyllite, schist, gneiss. Note that each rock has layering (foliation) that is caused by a parallel arrangement of platy minerals within the rock.

And then there are metamorphic rocks that form just because of high temperatures, typically because they were heated by the intrusion of a nearby igneous body. This type of metamorphism, called “contact metamorphism” is a common origin for non-foliated marbles and quartzites. Marble forms by contact metamorphism of limestone and dolomite; quartzite forms by contact metamorphism of sandstone.

The photo on the below shows the igneous rock diorite intruding the sedimentary Helena Dolomite in Glacier National Park, Montana. You can see how contact metamorphism has turned the dolomite next to the intrusion into a white marble. Ooooh!


Intrusive “sill” of diorite and the resulting contact metamorphism of adjacent gray dolomite to white marble in Glacier National Park, MT.

For more, higher resolution photos of each feature or rock type, try doing a geology keyword search for any of the rock types or features described here. Some useful keywords are “igneous, intrusive, volcanic, metamorphic, sedimentary, phenocryst, tuff, pumice, or volcanic glass” –or any others you can think of. Enjoy!


Rockin’ countertops–geologic time in our kitchens and bathrooms!

I stopped by a “granite” supplier yesterday –the kind of place that sells “granite” and “marble” slabs for countertops.  Besides the fact that almost none of the slabs were actually granite or marble, they were spectacular rocks that showed wonderful wonderful detail. I nearly gushed at the idea of taking a geology field trip there.  It’s local, and you seldom find exposures like this anywhere else!

slabs of polished rock at a "granite" warehouse --not sure if any of this is actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time.

slabs of polished rock at a “granite” warehouse –most of it’s not actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time.

Generally speaking, “granite” in countertop language means “igneous” or “metamorphic” –crystalline rocks that form miles beneath Earth’s surface and so require great lengths of time to reach the surface where they can be quarried.  When I first started this blog, geologic time with respect to igneous and metamorphic rocks were some of the first things I wrote about –it’s such pervasive and important stuff.

So the main point is that your friend’s kitchen with “granite” countertops surrounds you with geologic time every time you walk in there!

But check out that green polka-dotted rock on the right side of the photo.  Full of rounded cobbles –it’s a conglomerate, originating by sedimentary processes on Earth’s surface. Does it indicate great lengths of geologic time? A Young Earth Creationist might say it were a deposit of “the Flood” and end-of-story.

Here’s a closer look:

Polished conglomerate --individual cobbles are metamorphic rocks. The green color comes from the mineral chlorite.

Polished conglomerate –individual cobbles are metamorphic rocks. The green color of the background material comes from the mineral chlorite. That’s a penny (on the left) for scale.

The conglomerate is made of beautifully rounded cobbles and small boulders that are almost entirely metamorphic in origin.  Most of them are gneisses, which form at especially high grades of metamorphism, typical of depths greater than 8 or 10 miles!  After a (long) period of uplift and erosion, the rock was exposed to erosion, gradually breaking into fragments, which eventually became these rounded cobbles, and ended up in the bottom of a big stream channel or on a gravel bar somewhere.

But that’s not the end of the story, because this deposit of rounded cobbles itself became metamorphosed –so it had to get buried again. We know that because the rock is pervaded by the mineral chlorite, which gives the rock its green color.  Chlorite requires metamorphism to form.  Granted, the rock isn’t highly metamorphosed –there’s no metamorphic layering and chlorite forms at low metamorphic temperatures– but it’s metamorphic nonetheless, typical of depths of a few miles beneath the surface.

And if you look even closer, you can see some of the effects of the reburial pressures: the edges of some of the cobbles poke into some of the other ones. This impingement is a result of the stress concentrations that naturally occur along points of contact.  The high stress causes the less soluble rocks to slowly dissolve into the other, more soluble rock.

cobbles, impinging into each other. Stars on right photo show locations.

cobbles, impinging into each other. Stars on right photo show locations.

I’m already jealous of the person who’s going to buy this slab of rock. It tells a story that begins with 1) metamorphic rock forming deep in the crust, then 2) a long period of uplift and erosion to expose the rocks, then 3) erosion, rounding, and deposition of the metamorphic cobbles, 4) reburial to the somewhat shallow depths of a mile or two–maybe more, 5) more uplift and erosion to expose the meta-sedimentary deposit, 6) Erosion by human beings.

And me? Personally, I’d like to make a shower stall or a bathtub out of this rock –can you imagine???

Some links you might like:
a blog I like that’s about science and creationism
another blog about an ancient Earth and deep time
my original song “Don’t take it for Granite“. (adds some levity?)
Geology photos for free download.




Great Unconformity in Montana –and rising seas during the Cambrian

Here’s yet another picture of the Great Unconformity –this time in southwestern Montana.  Once again, Cambrian sandstone overlies Precambrian gneiss.  You can see a thin intrusive body, called a dike, cutting through the gneiss on the right side.  You can also see that the bottom of the sandstone is actually a conglomerate –made of quartzite cobbles derived from some nearby outcrops during the Cambrian.

Great unconformity in SW Montana.

Photo of Cambrian Flathead Sandstone overlying Proterozoic gneiss in SW Montana.


And that’s me in the photo.  My left hand is on the sandstone –some 520 million years or so old; my right hand is on the gneiss, some 1.7 BILLION years old.  There’s more than a billion years of missing rock record between my two hands.  Considering that the entire Paleozoic section from the top of the Inner Gorge in the Grand Canyon to the top of the rim represents about 300 million years and is some 3500′ thick… yikes!

And… just like in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, there is Cambrian age shale and limestone above the sandstone.  This rock sequence reflects rising sea levels during the Cambrian.  It’s called the “Cambrian Transgression”, when the sea moved up onto the continent, eventually inundating almost everywhere.  If you look at the diagram below, you can see how this sequence formed.

Marine transgression

Sequence of rock types expected during a transgression of the sea onto a continent.

If you look at time 1, you can see a coastline in cross-section, with sand being deposited closest to shore, mud a little farther out, and eventually carbonate material even farther out.  As sea levels rise (time 2), the sites of deposition for these materials migrates landward, putting mud deposition on top the earlier sand deposition and so on.  At time 3, the sequence moves even farther landward, resulting in carbonate over mud over sand.  If these materials become preserved and turned into rock, they form the sequence sandstone overlain by shale overlain by limestone –just what we see on top the Great Unconformity.




Great Unconformity –Grand Canyon, Arizona

So just like intrusive igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks require great lengths of time to accomplish the uplift and erosion in order to be exposed at Earth’s surface.

So what do we make of this photograph?  It shows a sequence of sandstone, shale, and limestone sitting on top metamorphic rock (called the “Vishnu Schist”) in the Grand Canyon.  The sandstone was deposited right on top the schist.

Great unconformity, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sequence of Cambrian sandstone (the ledge across the middle of the photo), shale (the overlying slopes) and limestone (the upper cliffs) deposited on top the Vishnu Schist in the Grand Canyon.


Since sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, shale, or limestone, are deposited at Earth’s surface –and metamorphic rock forms beneath the surface, this photo shows that BEFORE the sedimentary rocks were deposited, the metamorphic rock (schist) had to have been uplifted and exposed.  So all the time required to bring the schist to the surface had to take place before the sandstone was even deposited.

The surface of contact between the sandstone and the schist is called an unconformity because it is here that we see evidence for a great deal of missing rock record.  The sandstone must be much younger than the schist –for the very reason that the schist first had to get uplifted and exposed at the surface before the sandstone was deposited on top of it.  So… because the sandstone is so much younger, but it was deposited right on top the schist, there must be a gap in the rock record between them … an unconformity.

And here is where we see evidence for even LONGER periods of time.  Overlying the sandstone?  Thousands and thousands of feet of more sedimentary rock.  And much of that sedimentary rock was marine… formed at sea level.  It is now over a mile above sea level.

And the schist itself?  The people who’ve studied it have determined that much of it was originally volcanic –which means that it originally formed at the Earth’s surface.  So… over geologic time, it must have been buried to the depths needed to turn it into a metamorphic rock BEFORE it was uplifted and exposed.

So… how old is Earth?  Some say 6 or 10,000 years… I think we’re looking at 10s of millions in this photo.  And if we consider the numerical ages for these rocks, 1.7 billion is the age of metamorphism of the schist –its original volcanic rock must have been older!

Metamorphic Rock

Metamorphic rock, just its very existence at Earth’s surface, signifies great lengths of geologic time –on the order of millions of years.

Consider this rock, high in the Teton Range of Wyoming.

Folded gneiss, formed at depths of 10 km or more, high in the Teton Range of Wyoming.

This is a metamorphic rock called gneiss –in a lot of ways, it’s like granite, because it contains a lot of the same minerals –but gneiss forms because an older rock (in this case, probably a granite) was heated to high enough temperatures that its minerals recrystallized into new minerals.  And most metamorphism also involves high pressures, so all the new crystals form in a particular arrangement (as opposed to granite, in which the crystals are randomly arranged) –that’s how the layering (called “foliation”) forms in metamorphic rocks: the recyrstallization of new minerals under pressure.

Close-up view of gneiss, showing crystals that formed in the same orientation, as a result of recrystallization while under directed pressure. The layering is called "foliation"

But the key thing here, is that metamorphic rocks form WITHIN the Earth, at depth –and just like granite, require uplift and erosion to get to the surface.  This gneiss formed at depths of 10 km or more and was then uplifted to its present elevation, nearly 4 km above sea level.  –which requires time.

click here to see more photos of metamorphic rocks
click here to see a geologic map of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: