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How Rocks Change

Introduction

Does it seem to you that rocks never change? For example, if you find a chunk of granite today, can you expect that it will still be granite at the end of your lifetime? That may well be true — but only because our lifetimes are very short relative to the history of the earth.

If we take a step back to look at geologic time (which focuses on changes taking place over millions of years), we find that rocks actually do change! All rocks, in fact, change slowly from one type to another, again and again. The changes form a cycle, called "the rock cycle."

The way rocks change depends on various processes that are always taking place on and under the earth's surface. Now let's take a closer look at each of these processes.



Heat & Pressure

What happens to cookie dough when you put it in the oven? The heat of the oven produces changes in the ingredients that make them interact and combine. Without melting the dough, the heat changes it into a whole new product — a cookie.

A similar process happens to rocks beneath the earth's surface. Due to movements in the crust, rocks are frequently pulled under the surface of the earth, where temperatures increase dramatically the farther they descend. Between 100 and 200 kilometers (62 and 124 miles) below the earth's surface, temperatures are hot enough to melt most rocks. However, before the melting point is reached, a rock can undergo fundamental changes while in a solid state — morphing from one type to another without melting.

An additional factor that can transform rocks is the pressure caused by tons of other rocks pressing down on it from above; heat and pressure usually work together to alter the rocks under the earth's surface. This kind of change, which results from both rising temperature and pressure, is called metamorphism, and the resulting rock is a metamorphic rock.

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